Creating the Anti-Rankings

Organizer of campaign against U.S. News gives admissions officers preview of system that seeks to make the search for a college educational and to put the emphasis on learning, not prestige.
September 26, 2008

Could the process of selecting a college actually be educational or even ... intellectual? Could one imagine the day when high school students compare approaches to first-year biology instead of rock-climbing walls, the quality of writing instruction instead of U.S. News and World Report rankings?

That's the vision of College Speaks -- a tool being created by the Education Conservancy, an organization that has been fighting the many commercial forces that have become big players in college admissions and attempting to make educational counseling central to the process. The group, led by Lloyd Thacker, has been best known in recent years for urging colleges to refuse to fill out the "reputational" surveys used by U.S. News, which are widely seen as invalid by educators. While that campaign may be having some success with college presidents -- fewer of whom appear to be filling out the surveys -- it hasn't diminished the rankings' popularity.

Recognizing that -- and also responding to the requests of some rankings critics, who have said they want to put forward a positive alternative -- the Education Conservancy has been working for a year on a new approach, an explicitly anti-rankings system for the college search.

An early version was presented for the first time in public Thursday at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It is a much more individualized, education focused approach, with less reliance on pure statistics, and the focus is on the fit between student and college, not the superiority of one college over another. The concept drew considerable praise from high school counselors and college admissions officers. Many said it was essential that some sort of service like this be created.

Jeff Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale University, delivered a lengthy attack on U.S. News, talking about how Robert Morse -- who directs the magazine's college rankings -- once asked him why, if the rankings are bad, colleges participate. Brenzel said he replied: "You know that you’ve got a monopoly on this game and by virtue of your monopoly you force people into this position. We submit because we have no alternative." Brenzel added that the conversation with Morse convinced him that it is past time "to build a better alternative."

But even amid the praise for the project, there was also skepticism, primarily about practicalities rather than the concept. Some noted that there are many other sources of college information -- already taxing colleges' time -- and that many students appear to gravitate toward less educational tools. And there is also discussion about how to build a permanent infrastructure to support the project, which Thacker and others say shouldn't stay at the Education Conservancy permanently.

How the Site Would Work

Here's how a student would experience the College Speaks site. The first part of the search would involve the student answering questions. There are three broad sets of questions, and students might jump around, focusing on some areas more than others. The three main areas are: What do I know about myself as a student? What do I know about selecting colleges? What do I know about college admissions?

Through follow-up questions, the goal would be to help students think about whether they want or are prepared for a very rigorous education, whether they might need to place more of a value on support services, whether geography is a key factor, why large or small institutions offer particular advantages and disadvantages, and so forth.

Where possible, the students will also get resources to help them think about these questions, and data showing how the attitudes of college students and recent graduates changed over time -- and how some of the qualities most prized by high school students may not be so important a few years down the road. The emphasis of the questions is on the learning environment, with questions and information about large classes vs. small, the importance of certain academic programs, internships, etc.

When a student wants to actually look for specific colleges, the site provides the "College Fit Finder." Here, the search is based in part on the students' answers to the questions about their educational goals, and also on some data-driven factors (grade point average). Students also can indicate whether they want to look at colleges that de-emphasize the SAT or don't require it -- and for those who don't make those choices, they can look for institutions with certain competitiveness ranges.

In many ways, Thacker said, the site is designed to replicate some of the values of college admissions counseling; a good counselor would never start a meeting by speculating on the most prestigious college to which a student might be admitted, but would ask a lot of questions and listen. He stressed the way College Speaks would put "educational values" back at center stage.

When a student goes through the process and receives a list of colleges to consider, they will not be ranked, but they will have different kinds of information -- beyond what a search would yield of a traditional college database. Students would find a syllabus sampler of courses, answers by colleges to a series of questions about their unique qualities, details about academic philosophy and so forth. In addition, a tool being built would allow a prospective student to contact a current student or faculty member at the college for a private online conversation. Colleges would also be able to add additional information, slide shows of their campus, and the more standard statistics that other Web sites provide.

Still other site features would include an "ask the experts" section where college presidents and admission deans respond to a range of questions in writing and video format, as well as data and other information about financial aid. The site would be free for students and high schools to use and would not feature advertising.

Some parts of the site -- such as a rotating featured college -- would be selected from among colleges providing as much information as possible, but the spot could not be purchased. Thacker predicted that the public nature of the site would encourage colleges to provide a lot of information. He said that when colleges see their peers participating, they will be motivated to join as well.

Thacker said that the site, while non-commercial, needs a business model to thrive. He said that the Education Conservancy was exploring options for the project to be adopted by a group that would respect the independence of the project and provide it with the support it needs.

Excitement and Concerns

The general reaction from those at the presentation was positive, with many talking about how the planned Web site provided a truly education-focused look at identifying colleges. People specifically praised the way the site will try to engage students, rather than just spitting out lists, and lauded such features as the syllabus samples.

There was some concern about whether students would go for it. "Will a kid coming across the site," asked one counselor "surf right by it [after] finding too many words?" Another suggested that while the approach was sound, it might attract more student interest if it ranked colleges (for each student individually), as some students want to get a 1, 2, 3 list. (Others said that they like College Speaks for not doing that.)

There was also much discussion of how information would be gathered. Privately, some at the meeting said later that they feared that the proposed site -- while educationally worthy -- would involve a lot of work for colleges that are already frustrated by the volume of information requests from government agencies, accreditors and rankings.

Indeed, while rankings and the government have been asking colleges for data for years, this effort comes at a time when Web sites on the college experience are proliferating. Many public colleges and universities are joining the Voluntary System of Accountability; many private ones are participating in the University and College Accountability Network. Other new sites continue to sprout up, such as Unigo, which pitches itself as a place for students to share information about their own colleges. Generally, those raising the concern about Web site overload said that they liked the idea of College Speaks, and in fact preferred it to some existing sites, but didn't know if they could drop the sites they already used.

Others said that they worried about how College Speaks would measure such factors as academic rigor and student support services in a comparable way. "The elephant in the room is whether colleges will be honest," said one counselor.

Several suggested that the Education Conservancy link up with the National Survey of Student Engagement and use its data, although Thacker pointed out that not all colleges participate and that not all colleges are public with their data. He also expressed hope that more would participate in the future, and that NSSE data might be one way to go. He stressed that the version of the Web site being presented was preliminary and this meeting was being held to get feedback to improve the ideas, not to unveil a finished product.

Thacker said that he realized that the project faced hurdles, but he said he was optimistic that it could jump them. He noted that so many colleges have "a thirst" to take the admissions process back from commercial interests -- and said that this effort was a way for them to do so.

Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, said he thought the effort would work. "It’s distinctive in that it forces students to think, and most tools don't," he said.

Yale vs. 'U.S. News'

Among those in the audience was Morse, the U.S. News rankings director. Asked what he made of the presentation, Morse said that "the site and concept still has a considerable amount of work to think through," adding that "I have strong doubts that the data currently exists to produce the type of search and information the creators think is possible." At the same time, he said that " U.S. News hopes that they succeed."

The magazine has long argued that its influence isn't as great as colleges claim and charged that colleges use it as a scapegoat.

Brenzel, of Yale, said that the reason this project was so important was that it would challenge the magazine's hold on the admissions process. He said that people frequently ask him why he should care about this project; "You live at the top of the rankings," they say. But Brenzel said that gave him a particularly good view of the damage being done. He cited the "many inappropriate applications driven strictly by our brand name and prestige” and the “view that admissions game is a game."

Citing further damage done by the rankings, he cited "the trustees and other stakeholders who obsess” over SAT scores, application counts, and yield because "they think tiny distinctions matter," and end up asking "why is Princeton always No. 1 and what can we do about that?"

But perhaps worst, he said, is the toll on students, who must suffer from "incredible parental narcissism" and may end up -- when rejected from colleges at the top of the rankings -- "internalizing a judgment of their personal potential and worth."

Brenzel said that Morse once tried to convince him to stop supporting Thacker's efforts. But Brenzel said that U.S. News rankings have been "the greatest amplifier" of many of the negative trends in admissions in the last 20 years and it was time to create a new system. It is, he said, "a moral obligation."


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