TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: If U.S. News college rankings aren't reliable, then why not make your own?



Discredited and disliked, but undeniably influential, the annual college ratings from U.S. News and World Report are in the midst of being compiled.

The rankings persist because... well, because people love rankings. Even though they famously value reputation over quality, so that well-regarded schools can coast, while up-and-comers go under-recognized. And even though they tell applicants nothing about whether colleges are mismanaged by nitwits who disregard public safety, or treat the Constitution or their states' laws as merely "advisory."

As it turns out, they also are at least occasionally based on fiction. Schools from Tulane to George Washington to Emory have owned up to padding their stats, casting doubt on whether the ratings are worth the paper (sorry, sore subject) they're printed on.

Some misinformation has resulted from pure sloppiness. But in other instances, figures were purposefully inflated by image-crazed college administrators, who realize that just one extra U.S. News ranking point could mean thousands more applications that they can reject next year -- which will mean even more U.S. News ranking points, which will mean thousands more...

U.S. News bases its widely hated-but-read ratings on responses to questionnaires that, according to the magazine, began hitting campuses in March. Colleges are given a passcode and a secure website where they can complete the questionnaire and upload the results.

Find out who at your institution is in charge of completing and submitting the U.S. News questionnaire. At a state university, any such document prepared and kept by public employees is an open record. If the university downloads a copy -- or keeps a raw copy of its answers -- then that's a matter of public record and should be produced on request.

(Even if the college just uses the website but doesn't physically print out the results, that's probably still a public record. Florida State University tried the old "we just looked at the NCAA memo online, we didn't actually touch it" trick to evade Florida's strict public-disclosure laws, and the courts weren't amused.)

Consider, too, making a targeted records request to key administrators for emails with the phrase "U.S. News" in the subject line or body. How much time college employees spend trying to game the ratings system, and how much they obsess over the results, are matters the public should know about.

Once you know what your university has been telling the magazine ratings gurus, then it's time to do what too many colleges themselves have failed to do: Check the math.

For instance, the average standardized test scores for the entering freshman class -- a statistic that should be a pretty solid number not subject to a lot of interpretation -- has proven temptingly easy to fake.

That's a statistic that should be gathered by state boards of regents or state education departments, by the U.S. Department of Education and by regional accrediting organizations. If the university is telling different stories to these different audiences, find out why. And don't overlook the university's own promotional materials -- press releases, recruitment packets -- as a quick "lie detector." What the college is telling U.S. News should at least measure up to what it is bragging about when trying to woo a prized recruit.

 

Tagged: college rankings, public records, transparency, Transparency Tuesday, U.S. News and World Report