Members of the Annapolis Group, comprised of about 80 liberal arts colleges including Sarah Lawrence, Oberlin, and Reed, announced yesterday they will opt out of the US News college rankings. It is the latest example of a failure to understand what the college accountability movement is all about.
While the US News ranking system is by no means perfect, there isn’t a lot of useful information on colleges and universities accessible for students and parents. It’s a pretty simplistic argument, but doesn’t the success and ubiquity of the magazine rankings indicate the huge demand out there?
The worst argument against accountability put forth by leaders of the Annapolis Group is that this is about privacy. As Thomas J. Hochstettler, President of Lewis and Clark College, argued last summer in an op-ed against the Spellings Commission:
Much of my colleagues’ criticism centers on the perception that we can’t trust the federal government with such sensitive data. Do we want Uncle Sam knowing every class our students are taking, every grade they earn, every course they drop? Critics have also noted the apparent ease with which the federal government could link data to students’ Social Security numbers and, presumably, to their complete life stories.
Maybe Hochstettler forgot that the federal government has successfully conducted income tax, Social Security, and gun background check systems without breaches of privacy for years. For an even more apt comparison, consider that state education departments can now track individual K-12 student achievement year-to-year through student identification numbers.
No, this is a power grab. Some colleges in the Annapolis Group, like Amherst and Pomona Colleges, are able to graduate students in six years (the new four) around 95% of the time, but peer institutions are often well below this figure. The aforementioned Reed College (one of the leaders in the anti-rankings movement) succeeds at a 20% lower clip. Other members of the Annapolis Group, like Transylvania University and Hampden-Sydney College, graduate less than two-thirds of their entering students.
Graduation rates are crude measures of student success, but colleges provide us with little else. Imagine if a prospective student could know how hard they would be expected to work, or how successful the school is in placing graduates into jobs. Some of this data exists already, but it’s kept under wraps. Two of the seven colleges mentioned above (not the ones you’ve heard of) participated in the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement, a survey that measures things like how much time a student spends studying, how many papers they write of what length, and how approachable faculty are. It costs institutions of this size only $3,375 to conduct the survey, but still not all of them do it, and they are not required to release any of the data.
There has to be some sort of side-by-side comparisons for students to make educated decisions on where to go to college. US News may honestly be the best we’ve got right now. With tuition skyrocketing and loan scandals rocking the industry, the least policymakers can do is help students make a good choice.