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"Slay the Monster": College rankings under review
Posted 10/10/2013 02:36PM

Let's Slay the Monster

From My Angle
Dave Monaco, Allen Meyer Family Head of School
Posted October 9, 2013

 

I had the occasion recently to read yet another article about an institution caught trying to game the college ranking system. In this instance, Washington and Lee, a fine liberal arts school in Virginia, admitted to counting partial applications as completed applications, thus increasing the apparent selectivity of its process. Selectivity represents a key metric used by US News and World Report’s widely known “Best Colleges” list.

With the college application season now upon us, I read this and could only shake my head in a combination of disgust and pity. How is it that we have allowed a process as important and personal as the selection of a place for further study, maturation and career exploration to be distilled to this: a ranking system yielding lists which reflect the biases of the list makers and are powered by data which is of questionable credibility.

Sadly, the US News list is not alone when it comes to the fallibility of its data. Both Forbes and Kiplinger produce rankings and recently removed schools – George Washington University (Forbes) and Claremont McKenna (Kiplinger) – from their lists for a period of time when similar instances of dirty data came to their attention.

Let me be clear. While it is disappointing that these and other institutions of higher education have made the poor choices they did, each of them are terrific colleges and universities offering outstanding programs. To me, the primary rub lies with those of us – parents, college preparatory schools, higher education leaders, the media and the list likely goes on – who have validated these lists by according them a disproportionate influence. In what should otherwise be a highly personalized selection process for families, we have allowed a large number of institutions who differ in mission, size, level of affordability (just to mention a few) to be lumped together into a group and categorized based on criterion selected by the list maker.

In 1985 I graduated from a college preparatory independent school. In 1991 I began my teaching career in one and by 1998 was in a leadership position in another. I can say with confidence that over this 30 year period, the beast that is the college placement ranking list has been born, fed, and unleashed. As noted author and thought leader Malcolm Gladwell has suggested in his provocative piece on the fallacy of ranking systems like those used for colleges,  in the mid-1980s (as I graduated from high school) the U.S. News Best College guide

“was little more than an item of service journalism tucked away inside U.S. News magazine. Now the weekly print magazine is defunct, but the rankings have taken on a life of their own.”

 Indeed they have. While I never once looked at a college ranking list as I made my own college decision in 1985, I have watched throughout my professional career as such lists have cast an increasingly large shadow over college preparatory schools, public and private alike. To my mind, the results of this specter have been uniformly negative.

As consumers have become more beholden to these lists, the influence on school programs has been widespread and largely understated. To a great degree, college preparatory schools themselves are subjected to a de facto ranking process with these college lists as the driver. Which colleges a prep school sends its kids to, and where those schools “rank,” has become the end-all, be-all when it comes to determining its “value proposition,” "overall quality,” or leading “brand indicator.” And to what end? Programs at our independent schools, in part as a reaction to consumer focus on these lists, have narrowed. Students feel compelled to take the honors and AP courses necessary to access these “highly ranked” schools and do so sometimes regardless of a their particular interest in the course. Schools want high student attainment on such tests and thus plow through the necessary content at warp speed. Shiny college placement lists are placed front and center and, in some instances, college counseling offices steer students to apply to schools which would reflect more favorably on the institution.  Subsequently, GPAs, AP dossiers and standardized test scores come to rule the day. The result? More unnecessarily pressure-filled and joyless learning experiences; less student-organized and directed learning; less emphasis in teaching enduring skills in collaboration, creativity and communication.

At Parish, we are committed to working back from this hyper-focus on lists, rankings and outcomes. Our vision is to redefine the college preparatory experience. We will be steadfast in a commitment to student-engaged learning experiences and the development of critical life-ready skills. We believe we can do this, see our students leave our school more balanced and joyful, and with admission to an excellent institution of higher education assured.  For many that will be at America’s “best” colleges and universities. But we also know, with thousands of degree-granting institutions in the United States, there is a terrific college or university out there for everyone.

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