Rethinking college rankings

Posted: October 04, 2007

Brian C. Mitchell

is the chairman and a past president

of the Association of Independent Colleges

and Universities of Pennsylvania

It's no longer news that many of us in higher education have serious concerns about the annual college rankings by publications such as U.S. News & World Report. After years looking closely at these rankings and their methodology, I am more convinced than ever that a different system is needed.

Many students and families take these rankings quite seriously as they make their college choices. That's understandable. College is a major investment, and it is impossible to independently research hundreds of institutions.

Unfortunately, these rankings are based on selective and incomplete information. The most popular of the rankings, those by U.S. News & World Report, says almost nothing about the outcomes of a college education, for example. In fact, the only learning outcome considered is six-year graduation rates.

And what do the rankings say about campus life? Very little. How many students live on campus, for example? What are the opportunities for community service, to be involved in student organizations, to study abroad?

Absent such information, students relying on the rankings to make a choice may not consider a number of schools that might be the best fit for them.

With this concern in mind, 59 independent Pennsylvania colleges and universities have joined hundreds of others around the country to participate in U-CAN, a national database, which launched Sept. 26.

Led by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), the University & College Accountability Network provides prospective students and their families concise, Web-based, consumer-friendly information. U-CAN is free to users and to the colleges and universities that choose to participate. The Web address is www.ucan-network.org

The goal is to allow users to search and evaluate the measures they consider most important in a college education. The in-depth information covers admissions, enrollment, academics, student demographics, graduation rates, most common fields of study, transfer of credit policy, accreditation, faculty information, class size, tuition and fee trends, price of attendance, financial aid, campus housing, student life, and campus safety.

U-CAN also gives consumers easy access to information on average loans at graduation, undergraduate class-size breakdown, and net tuition for hundreds of colleges. The information comes from the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System survey and the Common Data Set.

To develop the system, NAICU talked to focus groups across the country. Prospective students and parents from all backgrounds - not magazine editors - identified the information they needed to make an informed college choice. Their comments shaped the format and content of the U-CAN Web site. Now, students and families have available a source of broad information about higher education that will allow them to make choices based on their needs and educational goals.

Education occurs in ways far beyond what data can measure. With a more complete assessment, though, students will at least be able to select a college based on the information that matters most to them.


Brian C. Mitchell is the president of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania represents 85 private colleges and universities in the commonwealth.

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