College rankings: In the eye of the beholder

BY STEPHEN OSTROWSKI
Daily Staff Writer
Published March 24, 2009

The University of Michigan calls itself home of the leaders and best. And while the catchphrase might smack of arrogance, there is plenty of support that this school does lead the pack and is one of the best — application rates, research grants, alumni base and college rankings.

Illustration by Laura Garavoglia

The U.S. News and World Report lists the University as the 26th-best institution of higher education in the country, wedged comfortably between the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, respectively.

Forbes Magazine, meanwhile, listed the University at 161st, right between Lake Forest College and Wisconsin Lutheran College.

In the world of college rankings, neck-breaking double takes abound. But it’s the nature of the business that discrepancies exist — why would Forbes begin ranking schools if its list was going to match up almost exactly with U.S. News, the leading rankings publication? The flip side to that, of course, is how could a dozen different publications differentiate their ranking systems enough to make printing them worthwhile? The trick is widely varying methodologies so that the same qualities that got a university in one publication’s top 20 barely warrant a ranking above 200 to another publication.

College rankings might not be what they appear to be, but they can’t be written off altogether. At least prospective students don’t think so. According to Michigan Cooperative Institutional Research data, 41.6 percent of students entering the University in Fall 2008 said that rankings were “very important” in deciding where to attend, compared with only 3.4 percent ten years ago. The same data has the percentage of students answering “very important” at 33.5 percent five years ago.

The importance — perceived importance, at least — of college rankings is as objective as the rankings are subjective. To decide which publications give the University a fair shake and which are just talking trash, it’s crucial to look at the methodology of the ranking system. Here is a breakdown of four very different approaches to ranking the nation’s colleges.

U.S. News and World Report

Top three schools: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, respectively.

Michigan: 26

Undoubtedly the recognized authority on college rankings, the U.S. News list can be likened to the hyper-masculine, turbo-Neanderthal fourth-grader that dominates the blacktop and crushes the meek competition. But name recognition does not necessarily translate into respect.

The Education Conservancy, an education reform organization, has an open letter on its website signed by several university presidents that criticizes the U.S. News rankings as “misleading” and says that its system tends to “overlook the importance of a student in making education happen and overweight the importance of a university’s prestige in that process.”

As detailed on its website (college.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com), U.S. news obtains its rankings by averaging together differently weighted components. First is peer assessment, weighed at 25 percent, for which university administrators rate schools’ academic programs on a 1-5 scale. Second is retention rate, weighed at 20 percent, which measures how many students graduate in six years or less and how many freshmen return the next year. Another 20 percent is faculty resources, consisting of class size, faculty pay, the highest college degrees obtained by professors, student-faculty ratio and percentage of fulltime faculty.

Then, there is student selectivity (measured by standardized test scores), accounting for 15 percent. The next 10 percent is financial resources or “average spending per student on instruction, research, student services, and related education expenditures.” Five percent accounts for graduation rate performance, which the publication calculates by finding the difference between the year’s graduation rate and the rate U.S. News had predicted for that class. The final 5 percent considers the rate of alumni donations.

Unsurprisingly, Michigan boasts statistics justifiable for its not-too-shabby rank: according to collegeresults.org, the University had a graduation rate of 86.9 percent in 2006, below only that of UCLA and UC-Berkley, institutions that beat Michigan in the U.S. News rankings.

Still, some statistics do not bode well for the University’s rank. Michigan had a student-faculty ratio of 15 to 1 last year, while Princeton boasted a 5 to 1 ratio and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a 6 to 1 ratio, according to a North Carolina State University website devoted to following higher education. Michigan also ranks outside the top 30 institutions concerning alumni donations with a rate of 18 percent. Princeton, Yale, Harvard and other institutions ranked higher by U.S. News claim alumni donation rates as high as 60 percent.

Forbes Magazine

Top three schools: Princeton, California Institute of Technology, Harvard, respectively

Michigan rank: 161

Playing apparent foil to the U.S. News is Forbes Magazine, whose rankings are based on “the quality of education (universities) provide and how much their students achieve.”

Rankings are determined in conjunction with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and include five components. First, weighed at 25 percent, is the number of alumni in the yearly “Marquis Who’s Who in America” list, a directory of influential people in the nation. A description of the rankings system’s methodology on Forbes.com said this measurement was selected over the peer assessment method used by U.S. News and student opinion prioritized heavily in Princeton Review. The Forbes list focuses on alumni achievement more directly than any other rankings.

Accounting for another 25 percent is student evaluation of professors, compiled from entries on RateMyProfessor.com. Anyone who’s posted a too-harsh review on the website out of temporary anger might see how this measurement could be imperfect. But Forbes attests that the method is sound, as the website serves as a sort of consumer review forum free from the control of university administrators.

Rounding out the list’s components are four-year graduation rate (16.66 percent), average student debt (16.66 percent), and number of awards won by students and faculty. Among the awards considered are the Rhodes Scholarship and Fulbright grants for students and the Nobel Prize and Guggenheim Fellowship for faculty.

Although the University might not boast the most Nobel Prize winners, how it could fall below schools like Furman University and Maryville College is befuddling. As already mentioned, Michigan boasts an impressive graduation rate, and the number of former Wolverines in the Obama administration should help in the “Who’s Who” department.

Why, then, such a deplorable rank? According to the Forbes website, small liberal arts schools rank higher “due to their quality of faculty and the personal attention they can provide.” As Forbes bluntly puts it: “generally speaking, big state schools performed poorly.” The University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin, which usually hover around Michigan in the U.S. News rankings, were ranked at 215th and 335th, respectively.

Simply put, Michigan, with an undergraduate community of more than 25,000, gets the shorter end of Forbes’s stick against schools like 12th-ranked Wabash (“a tiny, all-male school”) with a freshman class of 250 students.

Washington Monthly College Rankings

Top three schools: MIT, Cal Berkley, Penn State, respectively

Michigan rank: 18

Harvard is ranked 28th. Enough said?

On its website, The Washington Monthly prefaces its rankings with the following: “Welcome to The Washington Monthly College Rankings. Unlike other college guides, such as the U.S. News and World Report, this guide asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for their country.” Kennedy allusions aside, The Washington Monthly aims to create rankings of colleges based on one question: “Are they doing well by doing good?”

To actually measure universities’ devotion to the adage “do good by doing good,” The Washington Monthly determines its rankings by three components. The first is a school’s capability to perform as an “engine of social mobility” based on the projected graduation rate of Pell students (grants received by lower-income students).

Factored in next is research in the humanities and sciences, determined by money spent on projects, the number of PhDs awarded in Science and Engineering and the number of alums who go on to obtain PhDs.

Finally, The Washington Monthly weighs service to the community, measured by percentage of students in ROTC, alums in the Peace Corps and grants given to community service projects. Michigan is one of six institutions to send over 2,000 volunteers to the Peace Corps, according to the Peace Corps website.

Any rankings system that casts Harvard outside the top 10 is pretty anomalous — but keeping in mind President Kennedy’s designation of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union, any rankings system that gives priority to student service seems pretty noble as well.

Global Language Monitor

Top three schools: Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, respectively

Perhaps the most novel rankings system belongs to the Global Language Monitor, a linguistics organization ranking schools based on, according to languagemonitor.com, a school’s “appearance on the Internet, throughout the blogosphere, as well as global print and electronic media.”

This system seeks to measure prominence of a school’s “brand name” by counting how many times its name is mentioned online as well as in print and electronic media. GLM attains this information with its “Trendtopper analysis” system, which the company has used to track trends in word usage over the last five years.

GLM President Paul J.J. Payack said on the website that the students who go farthest are those who carry the best name recognition.

“Prospective students, alumni, employers, and the world at large believe that students who are graduated from such institutions will carry on the all the hallmarks of that particular school,” Payack said. “Our TrendTopper analysis is a way of seeing the schools through the eyes of the world at large.”

That is good news for Michigan students: GLM has the University ranked third, behind only Harvard and Columbia.

GLM’s ranking system is certainly an innovative idea, given the increasingly digital, Twitter addicted world. But should GLM’s rankings grow in clout, universities might try to inflate their rank with obnoxious viral videos. It’ll be a sad day when a university tries to garner attention via “I’m On a Boat”-type YouTube stardom.