Wednesday, September 01, 2010

30 Ways to Rate a College

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a short article that surveys the ways that different organizations rate colleges. Dated August 29, 2010, by Alex Richards and Ron Coddington, the article is mostly an interactive map, which lays out on the left six different publications which rate colleges. Then, it lays out on the right, eight blocks of categories on which each organization ranks the colleges:

* Admissions selectivity and student demographics
* Evaluations
* Finances and spending
* International diversity
* Service
* Financial aid
* Student, faculty and alumni achievement
* Teaching

In each category, are from two to seven measures. Next to each measure is a circle with a number showing the number of raters who use that measure to rank colleges. The interactive feature lets you click on the publication name and "turn off" their lines on the map, or turn them back on.

Some of the categories listed above are fairly straightforward and self-explanatory. But others are less so. For instance, the two measures under "Service" are:

* Army/Navy ROTC size
* Alumni serving in the Peace Corps

Each of those measures has one publication using that measure to rate colleges, by the way, Washington Monthly. Some of the measures are strange and make you wonder what it actually has to do with the quality of the school. "Percentage of federal work-study grants focused on community service," for instance, might tell you something interesting, but I am not sure what it tells you about the quality of the school. That appears as a student demographic, and is measured by Washington Monthly. You can argue a lot about what any of these numbers tell you about a college, and whether the numbers alone tell you anything worth knowing.

The point of the article is actually how few points of agreement there are among the various organizations that rate colleges on the measures they use for ranking. They also point out that most of the numbers being used are input measures, and very few are output measures. One of the few, perhaps only scholarly works is Outcomes Assessment In Higher Education by Hernon & Dugan (2004). It is a serious attempt by respected academics to survey and evaluate methods of rating colleges and universities. They suggest new options as well, looking at input and outputs to be measured. I don't agree with all the suggestions, but it's a worthy effort, and I don't know of any other by people in the academy.

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