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College ranking reports disagree on what makes a school great

Sunday, September 9, 2007 | 9:24 p.m. CDT; updated 1:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — For 24 years, U.S. News and World Report has dominated the way students and parents evaluate the quality of American universities. That prestige came into serious question this year, however, when a group of 64 college presidents signed an open letter of protest of U.S. News’ methodology, saying they would no longer participate in the magazine’s surveys nor use the rankings for promotional use.

But, in the offices of Washington Monthly, a magazine that claims to be “the most insightful magazine on politics and government in America,” criticism of U.S. News’ methods reached a peak in 2005. That’s when the magazine’s editors decided to publish their own rankings of American universities, using a set of criteria different from U.S. News.

Ryan Anderson, director of development and communications at Washington Monthly, said the magazine will focus on a school’s record of “how much it contributes to the common good.” The rankings are based on three categories: the social mobility of students, research priorities and community service.

“We are interested in taxpayers’ return on their public investment,” Anderson said. “These are the three areas we have identified as crucial to the public-interest mission of universities.”

It is difficult to directly compare the value of the organizations’ rankings because of the differing criteria. U.S. News uses 15 weighted academic indicators, “based on our judgments about which measures of quality matter most.” The weekly magazine gets the data from the institutions themselves but selects which data to consider when compiling the rankings.

Washington Monthly stays away from making value judgments, Anderson said, and instead relies on information available to anyone.

“We limit ourselves to what data is available to the public,” Anderson said, including the amount of research grants the school receives and the number of Pell Grant recipients it admits.

A state school, Texas A&M University, tops Washington Monthly’s latest list of best national universities. Factors that helped A&M were its high ROTC enrollment and the large percentage of federal work-study funds used for community service.

The Ivy League schools that top U.S. News’ highest rankings are visibly absent from Monthly’s; Cornell is the exception because of the number of doctoral degrees the school awards and because a high number of students join the Peace Corps.

U.S. News and World Report’s highest ranked public institution, the University of California-Berkeley, appears at number 21 on Monthly’s list. Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., is the top-ranked liberal arts college because of the number of students participating in ROTC. The school is ranked 106 on the U.S. News list of best liberal arts colleges.

MU appears to fare better on Washington Monthly’s list, where it is ranked 60th among national universities. With 35 percent of its federal work-study funds spent on service, MU ranks 12th in this category out of 242 universities. It received $75 million in research grants and awarded 157 doctoral degrees this year, placing it in the top half of national universities in both of these categories.

On the U.S. News list, MU fell from 88 to 91 in the magazine’s most recent rankings, tied with four other schools: Universities of Alabama, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Other Columbia schools, however, did not fare as well as MU in Washington Monthly’s rankings. Stephens College was ranked 191 out of 201 liberal arts colleges, largely because the school’s annual graduation rate is 9 percent lower than its predicted graduation rate. It also has a low percentage of federal work-study funds spent on community service.

U.S. News considers Stephens in the bottom 25 percent of liberal arts colleges.

Columbia College did not turn up on Monthly’s list, but ranked 44th on U.S. News’ list of top master’s programs in the Midwest.

Amy Gipson, vice president for marketing and public relations at Stephens College, said the only real way to evaluate a college is to visit the campus.

“Take rankings with a grain of salt,” she said.

Still, rankings have become, for many parents and students, the guiding light in a sea of overwhelming possibilities. MU Provost Brian Foster said the information included in rankings is important, but not everyone is able to interpret it.

“A lot of students are interested in the cash value of their degree, the prestige. They see rankings as a measure of prominence and reputation,” Foster said. “It’s good for people to have information, but it’s important to recognize that the information that they get is hard to penetrate.”

To help parents and students make better sense of the factors that contribute to a quality college education, two organizations are developing online databases.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities will launch a free online resource called U-CAN later this month. The U-CAN system will offer information about enrollment, diversity and tuition at private colleges and universities.

The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, in conjunction with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is developing a voluntary system of accountability, which will include a function to allow students to calculate the net cost of their education. The proposed format, which is similar in layout to U-CAN, will be voted on by the two organizations during their annual meetings in November.


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