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A better way to rank America's colleges

Parents and students deserve a program to create their own rankings.

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Many of us in higher education dislike popular college rankings such as the annual academic beauty pageant from US News & World Report. But expecting them to go away is naive, and attempting to undermine them is unwise since students and families could perceive that as petulant and paternalistic. Worse, it could seem as if we have something to hide.

What should higher education do instead? We should do what we do really well – educate and contribute new ideas. We dislike the rankings because they imply an objective ranking of a complex set of institutions, which we then worry has an undue impact on students' choices. Our claim that useful data are already available through our reporting to the government and elsewhere is a little disingenuous, because those data are hard to access and not easily used to evaluate and compare institutions.

Instead, we in higher ed should work to make available a better mousetrap, which would decrease the importance of the existing rankings to students and families. No rankings are perfect, but given families' interest in the judgments that rankings offer, supplying a better alternative to the flawed commercial rankings seems a better strategy for moderating their influence.

One way for higher ed to start would be to agree to send to a third-party non-profit or foundation the same data that we already submit to US News and other rating organizations, as well as sending other important data that we regularly report. The third party would then make the data readily available online, perhaps on a website.

Fortunately, efforts like this are under way at both the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and the Annapolis Group, a consortium of America's leading liberal arts colleges. The best possible result of these initiatives would include an easy-to-use program to allow prospective students and their parents to essentially build their own rankings. They could decide which variables they value and how much, by assigning their own weights to the criteria they care about. If you don't care about SATs, give them a zero weight! If you care about small classes and the diversity of the student body, weigh them heavily.

This do-it-yourself capacity would serve several functions. The decisions about variables and weights would demonstrate to students and families that the rankings are sensitive to these choices.

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