Essay on danger of countries setting policy based on university rankings

It was a rare spectacle: a senior administrator of a leading international university, speaking at a conference of peers, issued a public "thank you" to those who compile university rankings. The rankers – me included -- more typically face criticism of the power and influence we wield.

But Chen Hong, director of the office of overseas promotion at China's Tsinghua University, told the World 100 Reputation Network conference in Washington in May: "We should thank those organizations who publish these indicators. At least we can find something for comparison and benchmark our own performance."

Reflecting the approach that my magazine, Times Higher Education (THE), has taken to disaggregate the overall composite ranking scores in our publications, she explained: "What is useful for us is the detailed indicators within those rankings. We can find out comparable data, benchmarking various universities and use them for planning."

Indeed, there is growing evidence that global rankings – controversial as they are – can offer real utility. But those of us who rank must also be outspoken about the abuses, not just the uses, of our output.

There is no doubt that global rankings can be misused.

It was reported recently, for example, that a $165 million Russian Global Education program would see up to 2,000 Russian students each year offered “very generous” funding to attend institutions around the world – but that qualification for the generous scholarships will be dependent on the students attending an institution in the top 300 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Brazil’s hugely ambitious Science Without Borders scholarship program to send 100,000 Brazilian students overseas similarly links the scholarships to THE-ranked institutions.

While such schemes offer a welcome endorsement of the rigor of THE’s rankings data (provided by Thomson Reuters) and its ranking methodology, speaking as the (rather flattered) editor of the THE rankings I'd still suggest that they are ill-advised.

Global university ranking tables are inherently crude, as they reduce universities to a single composite score. Such rigid adherence to the rankings tables risks missing the many pockets of excellence in narrower subject areas not captured by institutionwide rankings, or in areas of university performance, such as knowledge transfer, that are simply not captured well by any ranking.

One of the great strengths of global higher education its extraordinarily rich diversity, which can never be captured by the THE World University Rankings, which deliberately seek only to compare those research-intensive institutions competing in a global marketplace and which include less than 1 percent of the world’s higher education institutions.

In this context, a new declaration from a consortium of Latin American university rectors agreed in Mexico City last week must be welcomed as a sensible and helpful contribution to the rankings debate. The declaration, agreed at a two-day conference at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, entitled "Latin American Universities and the International Rankings: Impact, Scope and Limits," noted with concern that "a large proportion of decision makers and the public view these classification systems as offering an exhaustive and objective measure of the quality of the institutions."

The rectors’ concern is of course well-placed – no ranking can ever be objective, as they all reflect the subjective decisions of their creators as to which indicators to use, and what weighting to give them. Those of us who rank need to work with governments and policy makers to make sure that they are as aware of what rankings do not -- and can never -- capture, as much as what they can, and to encourage them to dig deeper than the composite scores that can mask real excellence in specific fields or areas of performance. That is why I was delighted to be in Mexico City last week to joint the debate.

The meeting, which drew together rectors and senior officials from 65 universities in 14 Latin American countries, issued a call to policy makers to "avoid using the results of the rankings as elements in evaluating the institution’s performance, in designing higher education policy, in determining the amount of finance for institutions and in implementing incentives and rewards for institutions and academic personnel."

I would – to a large extent -- agree. Responsibly and transparently compiled rankings like THE’s can of course have a very useful role in allowing institutions, like Tsingua and many, many others, to benchmark their performance, to help them plan their strategic direction. They can help governments to better understand some of the modern policy challenges of mass higher education in the knowledge economy, and to compare the performance of their very best research-led institutions to those of rival nations. The rankings can help industry to identify potential investment opportunities and help faculty member make career and collaboration decisions.

But they should inform decisions -- never drive decisions.

The Mexico declaration said: "We understand the importance of comparisons and measurements at an international level, but we cannot sacrifice our fundamental responsibilities in order to implement superficial strategies designed to improve our standings in the rankings."

Some institutional leaders are not  as sensible as those in Latin America.

Speaking at the same Washington conference where Chen Hong gave thanks to the rankers, Pauline van der Meer Mohr, president of the executive board at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, confirmed frankly that proposals for a merger between her institution and Dutch counterparts the University of Leiden and the Delft University of Technology were “all about the rankings.”

The three Dutch institutions calculated, she explained, that merged as one, they would make the top 25 of world rankings, while separately they languish lower down the leagues. "Why would you do it if it doesn't do anything for the rankings?" she asked.

But the merger did not take place. It was dropped because of a mix of political unease, fierce alumni loyalty to the existing “brands,” and an “angry” response from research staff. Researchers at all three institutions, van de Meer Mohr admitted, had asked: "You are not going to merge universities just to play the rankings game?" To do so, they had concluded, would be "ridiculous."

I believe that those Dutch academics were quite right.


Phil Baty is editor of Times Higher Education rankings.


College Visits That Parents Might Not Like

High schoolers who make overnight visits to colleges they are considering are engaging in potentially dangerous or illegal behavior, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education at Susquehanna University and the group Students Against Destructive Decisions. A survey of more than 1,000 teens who said they had been on an overnight college visit found that:

  • 16 percent reported drinking alcohol on the visit.
  • 17 percent had sex or engaged in "intimate sexual behavior" during the trip.
  • 5 percent reported using drugs other than alcohol.
  • 2 percent drove while impaired.
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Berkeley Chancellor Opposes Out-of-State Limit

Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, on Thursday issued a statement opposing a proposed state constitutional amendment that would limit out-of-state (including international) enrollment to 10 percent -- roughly twice the limit Berkeley uses. "Our policy of increasing non-resident undergraduate enrollment to 20 percent of our student body is crucial to ensuring a predictable and reliable revenue stream and maintaining affordability for our California students while also enriching the educational experience for our students," Birgeneau wrote. "Students from other parts of the United States, and from around the world, are valuable members of the Cal community and it has been my long-held view that an increase in out-of-state and international undergraduate students is a critical educational goal at Berkeley. In addition to generating funds for educational support and financial aid, they also bring perspectives, experiences, and cultures to the campus, that benefit all students."

State Senator Michael Rubio, who proposed the amendment, said that he wanted to ensure that "California students get a fair shot at attending our University of California system -- and not be turned away simply because a wealthy student from the East Coast or abroad shows up with a checkbook in hand."


Demographic Shifts at CUNY

At the five most competitive colleges in the City University of New York, the combination of tougher admissions standards and the economic downturn has led to shifts in demographics, with the colleges attracting more students with high SAT scores, and more students who are white or are Asian than in the past, The New York Times reported. At these colleges, the percentage of freshmen with SAT scores of 1,200 or more has gone up 12 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2007 (before the recession) to 26 percent last fall. At the same time, the percentage of black students has fallen from 17 percent to 10 percent. CUNY officials said that the shift were an area of concern, but they noted that many students enter the college as community college transfers, and said that more black and Latino students are graduating than ever before.



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Georgian Court plan to admit men points to rate at which women's colleges are going coed

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Usually when a women's college says it's going coed, it omits the elephant in the room: that it's just one more in a long line to do so. Not Georgian Court.

Group Seeks Resignation of Rutgers-Camden Law Official

Alleging false and misleading recruitment materials that overstated earnings expectations and understated the risk of unemployment, an advocacy group is calling for the resignation of a Rutgers University at Camden School of Law administrator. Law School Transparency, a policy organization working to reduce the cost of legal education, said associate dean Camille Andrews sent prospective students information that exaggerated the benefits of attending Rutgers-Camden. In addition to Andrews's resignation, Law School Transparency called for an investigation by the American Bar Association and asked the university to clarify the data in those materials to any prospective students who were contacted.

Dean Rayman Solomon is standing by Andrews. Solomon said the recruitment material was accurate but that he's "open to discussion" about the best way to reach prospective students going forward. The promotion in question targeted potential applicants who took the GMAT, not the LSAT, the typical law school admission test. The goal, Solomon said, was to reach a new audience and introduce the Rutgers-Camden program. Students could then go online to get more information.

"This was one letter saying are you interested, have you thought about it?" Solomon said. "This is not our entire marketing campaign. This is telling people that we have a program."

But were the numbers misleading?

"I don’t know how to respond," Solomon said. "If you have a hundred people, would four of them be misled? Would one be misled? Would 98 be misled? [It was] a piece that was designed to get people to think about something they hadn't thought about. This wasn’t the only information they could get about it."

The transparency group charged that:

  • Employment data for recent graduates excluded the 43 graduates (out of 242 total) who were unemployed without making that distinction clear.
  • The college claimed that “many” recent graduates had salaries of more than $130,000, while a Law School Transparency analysis suggested that only one to five recent grads were earning in that range.
  • Rutgers-Camden exaggerates the likelihood and value of receiving a judicial clerkship. That claim left Solomon "incensed," because he said New Jersey has an exceptional and competitive clerkship program, unlike some other states.
  • By contacting students who took the GMAT, Law School Transparency said Rutgers-Camden portrayed itself inaccurately as a "down-economy safe haven that leads to status and riches."

The dean didn't dispute any of Law School Transparency's figures, which came from the college, but disagreed with the analysis.

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College Board's New Leader

David Coleman, one of the chief architects of and advocates for the common core curricular standards under consideration by states nationwide, will become the next president of the College Board, The New York Times reported. The College Board is best known for the SAT and the Advanced Placement program, but Coleman said that he sees a broader mission for the organization, telling the Times that "the College Board is not just about measuring and testing, but designing high-quality curriculum.”

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Georgian Court U. Will Admit Men to All Programs

Georgian Court University is planning to announce today that it will become a completely coeducational institution. The Roman Catholic university in New Jersey currently admits men to its evening and graduate programs, but its residential undergraduate college has been for women only. Men will be able to enroll in undergraduate courses in the fall. In the fall of 2013, men will be able to live on campus. At that point, the university will also add men's athletic teams in cross country, soccer, basketball, and track and field.

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Families used housing windfalls to send their kids to pricier colleges

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As housing prices rose for some working- and middle-class American families, so did college ambitions of their students, study finds. Which leads to the obvious question: Are those ambitions now dropping as home values fall?

What high-end summer camps say about college admissions and pricing (essay)

Contentious debates about rising college costs during the academic year make summer a welcome break from bad news.  One recent headline was “Political Storm Stirring over Student Loans.” The next day a New York Times editorial urged, “Subsidize Students, Not Tax Cuts!” These articles, unfortunately, forecast that summer is going to provide no vacation from higher education’s political heat wave.  It merely shifts the focus from the campus to camp.

That’s because the spending and choices associated with the American ritual of sending a child to summer camp today is a rehearsal for the kinds of decisions that will face a family about five years later when they consider sending the same child to college. It also reinforces how advantages and inequities are acquired early in the American college sweepstakes. 

For a relatively small portion of prospective college students and their parents who are serious about selective college admissions, here is how choices and opportunity costs have brought camp and campus into a seamless web of deliberations far beyond the planning and pocketbooks of most American families.

How Much Does It Cost?

The answer is that it all depends -- camps are comparable to colleges in their range of prices and services. Among the numerous possibilities is “Pine Forest Camp,” located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, conspicuous because it was selected by The New York Times as the subject for a front-page feature story on the changing economics of camp. A glance at the Pine Forest website indicates that in 2011 the charge for seven weeks of a full summer for a stayover camper was $9,700.

Official camp charges do not include such incidentals as travel and supplies.  There is considerable discretion on how much parents must pay versus how much they choose to pay.  And, for families who are newcomers to deciding about camp for their children, there is new information to absorb about camp expenses. The camp’s website provides a camp packing list.  Some clothing items “are only available through Bunkline" -- an internet site for purchase of camper gear. In addition to clothing and accessories, parents can pay for special optional programs: superstar tennis, superstar golf, horseback riding, top cooks, and one-on-one fitness.

Camp as College Prep

Pertinent for connecting camp to college, an upscale camp such as Pine Forest showcases on its website that it offers as a supplement a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) prep course. The catalog elaborates that, “In SAT Prep, campers will spend 4 hours a week preparing for the SAT by learning test-taking techniques and taking 3 practice tests during the summer. Campers have a competitive edge when they return to school in the fall. This extra course is taught by a certified teacher and SAT tutor. Most participants improve their scores by over 100 points."

An option in the leadership track for campers is the “College Bound” program. It is not completely clear whether this entails added charges. Or, if it does, how much? This detail is crucial because it can drive up expenses. Its availability suggests that the clients of the camp are highly concerned about college admissions.  The “College-Bound program combines the best parts of being a camper with additional responsibilities and challenges. 11th graders live together with counselors and enjoy the full range of Hi-Seniors activities. CAs participate in leagues, inter-camp games, socials, Color Days, Banquet, Cabaret…the best parts of camp! Plus CAs have unique ‘college-bound’ opportunities.”

The CAs have a trip to Washington, D.C., with visits to American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Holocaust Museum, the Kennedy Center, and on the way back to camp, a visit to Pennsylvania State University.  The Boston trip introduces camper-students to Boston University, Harvard University, and Boston College, along with walking tours of Cambridge and historic Boston.  Finally, the trip to New York City provided visits to New York University, Greenwich Village, and Broadway.

How Far and How Fast Are Costs Rising?

Both colleges and camps are scrutinized for their rising costs and prices over the long haul. In 1931, when Pine Forest Camp first opened, a seven-week stay cost $85. The summer camp in 1931 costs about 114 times as much today, 80 years later.

Did summer camp really cost 114 times more than now? This may be technically accurate – but it is a calculation so misleading as to be incorrect because it is incomplete.   When one accounts for inflation, that $85  in 1931 translates to $1,263.68 in 2011 dollars. Summer camp has increased by 767 percent -- or, stated another way, it is about eight times more expensive than it was in 1931.  As for comparing costs of college and camp, college presidents may find some relief from critics in now being able to document that colleges are not alone in escalating prices.

Extra Expenses and the Real Cost of Attendance

As preview for the peculiar consumerism of rising college costs, consider a recent development about summer camp expenses that made front page headlines in The New York Times article, “To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining Up for Private Jets.” A number of families were chartering private jets from New York and Philadelphia to take their children to rustic summer camps in rural Maine.  What started as an infrequent act spread in popularity, so much so that the small airports in Bangor and Augusta had to increase services to accommodate this expensive practice.  Why would parents pay huge amounts for air service instead of the traditional drive in the family station wagon or SUV?  The explanations provided a look at family discretionary choices about their children’s education and related support services.

Some parents explained that chartering a private jet was useful because it compressed round-trip travel time from several days to six hours.  This could be justified as effective and, perhaps, efficient.  There was a secondary, social effect: bragging rights and prestige among parents and children in which chartering the private jet conferred some reflected prestige of “conspicuous consumption.” All constituents henceforth had to be at least aware of this level, whether they mimicked it or not.

All this took place outside the purview of camp officials.  To the contrary, for some camp staff, it was a disconcerting clash with the values and experiences of camp life they wished to transmit to adolescents. Regardless of the camp administrators’ views, there was little they could do to encourage or discourage the practice.  Parents, meanwhile, had to take these factors into consideration about camp expenses and lifestyle. The summer camp economy had become financially stratified by official price plus added discretionary expenses subject to expensive status pressures. This was a forewarning of decisions about college prices and choices that a family would make in the future.  Most important, it shows how numerous variables need to be considered when one calculates the genuine cost of attendance.

Cost of Attendance (COA). Connections to College Costs: From Camp Back to the Campus

Camps and colleges use similar language such as “tuition and fees” charges. Second, a camp and a campus have comparable investments in residential physical plant with recreational and instructional facilities.  A residential camp enrolling 450 children has an annual budget of more than $2 million, including $1 million for salaries for a staff of 500.  Annual maintenance is about $700,000.  The residential dining hall at Pine Forest serves 4,200 meals per day for a summer total expense of $500,000. Third, the proliferation of expensive accessories illustrates how expenses can snowball. The connection between camp and campus becomes more evident when one recalls that a camp offered two optional programs for which families would have to pay extra: the SAT prep program and the Leadership program dealing with college campus visits.

Escalation of supplements was the focus of another New York Times article last summer on the quest for admissions advantage that high school seniors gain by enrolling in (and paying for) programs that provide unusual summer experiences geared to writing an impressive college application essay.  This new, expensive option in the summer experience was called “priceless fodder for the cutthroat college application process. Suddenly the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past."

If one knows that such pre-college socialization and programs make a difference in who goes where to college and how well they are prepared, does one then include the camp and other activities in plan for compensatory programs that increase promote genuine equity and access? The sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman observed in their 1968 classic work, The Academic Revolution, that for the children of education-minded American families, going to college is not a sprint, but a marathon.  Some competitive families start the preliminary heats of this race early, with summer camp as the racer’s edge.

Forty years ago John Gardner, in his 1961 book, Excellence -- asked, “Can we be equal -- and excellent, too?” High prices at camp and campus signal that the answer for today is, “Fat chance!”

John Thelin is professor of higher education & public policy at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins Press, 2011).



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