Of Reputation and Rankings
August 11, 2007
When students apply for admission to Lewis & Clark, they are affirming their values and aspirations–and ours. When faculty come here to teach, they are affirming their commitment to advancing knowledge, original thinking, and collaborative inquiry–and ours. When individuals apply to work here, they are affirming their principles–and ours.
Decisions are seldom unilateral. Choices always have consequences. These understandings and other considerations informed my own recent declaration that Lewis & Clark will no longer participate in the reputation survey that U.S. News & World Report conducts as part of its annual ranking of liberal arts colleges.
My decision affects one set of criteria used in evaluating undergraduate colleges. We will continue to provide other data to U.S. News, including our undergraduate rates of retention and graduation, SAT scores, and resources. We will also continue full participation in the methodology U.S. News uses to rank the nation’s law schools. By limiting our participation in the undergraduate rankings to objective, quantified data, we seek to improve the process by challenging the current method for determining quality.
Certainly this decision will have consequences. Our undergraduate college ranking (currently 79th) may fall, as the reputation survey accounts for 25 percent of an institution’s total standing. Many other college leaders who know us well are also not participating this year, so we will not enjoy the benefit of their evaluations.
Yet I am willing to risk the possibility of a lower ranking because a larger issue is at stake here. Higher education, and most especially liberal arts colleges, must take the lead in ensuring that current and prospective students, faculty, and staff have access to information that is truly relevant and meaningful when they are considering where to study, teach, learn, and work. Current rankings do not provide that information, with negative consequences for us all.
In fact, the current rankings derive from a problematic mix of quantitative data and qualitative evaluations. Data are neither entirely objective nor comparable from school to school, while qualitative evaluations are by definition highly subjective, even speculative.
Consider: When Sarah Lawrence College stopped providing SAT scores to U.S. News because the college does not collect these results, the magazine indicated it would simply plug in a number of its own calculation. Other colleges do not require SAT scores but do allow applicants to submit them if they wish. These SAT-optional schools tend therefore to receive and report scores that are at or above average, thereby boosting their own rankings.
As for evaluating quality, the U.S. News reputation survey asks college executive officers to assess our peers–and hundreds of institutions are involved here–by delivering our judgment, or at least our perception, of reputations using a scale of 1 to 5, with “Don’t know” as a sixth option. Less than rigorous, the process demeans all involved.
Most important, reputation surveys do not provide added insight into the true worth and daily functioning of liberal arts colleges. They do not bring enhanced perspective to the daunting choices facing prospective students and their parents. Overly simplified and superficial, surveys distance us from the core principles and values of liberal education: robust inquiry, rigorous analysis, open dialogue, critical thinking, and daring imagination.
When I am asked what we do here, I do not rely on an artificial scale. I share real stories of how our deep sense of place shapes our values, of how our faculty advance innovative scholarship, of how our students hone critical thinking, and of how committed all at Lewis & Clark are to leading lives of purpose.
Those who seek to be part of Lewis & Clark align who they are with who we are. So, too, by refusing to participate in reputation surveys, we align ourselves with a growing number of presidents and leaders of liberal arts colleges who are leading the challenge to develop measures and standards that affirm the quality, diversity, and richness of the opportunities we provide and the education we deliver.
Thomas J. Hochstettler