Another College Scandal?

U.S. News and World Report has been ranking colleges and universities for 30 years now. These rankings are dismissed by a number of prestigious colleges as somewhat bogus, but the contest among the vast majority of colleges to improve their rankings has become hot and heavy — and led to improprieties that stink of yet another scandal. In a recent story about the budding scandal (this one not connected with athletics) it was reported that

 “. . .students and families still buy the guide and its less famous competitors by the hundreds of thousands, and still care about a college’s reputation. But it isn’t students who obsess over every incremental shift on the rankings scoreboard, and who regularly embarrass themselves in the process. It’s colleges.

It’s colleges that have spent billions on financial aid for high-scoring students who don’t actually need the money, motivated at least partly by the quest for rankings glory.”

The rankings are based on quantifiable criteria, such as percentage of students who graduate, average ACT scores of incoming Freshmen, and so forth. And since this material is provided by the schools themselves, a number of the schools have been caught cheating: submitting false information in order to get a higher rating. The assumption the colleges make is that a higher rating by the magazine will translate into more students attending the school. And this despite the fact that U.S. News and World Report tells the students not to rely solely on their ratings in making their decision which college to attend. And they don’t. Apparently, prospective students don’t pay much attention to where the school they choose ranks with the magazine, according to a recent study. But this fact is blurred by the related fact that students do admit that the “academic reputation” of the college is a primary factor in their decision. One would think that the college’s rating in U.S. News and World Report and its academic reputation are closely related. So the social scientists who do these surveys need to do some more work to clear this up. But it seems apparent, in any case, that prospective students pay less attention to the ratings than the colleges themselves do — which is why some (many?) colleges have cheated in providing the magazine with skewed data and have given scholarship money to students who don’t need it in order to keep them in school. Tsk. Tsk.

The notion that one can reduce academic reputation to quantifiable data is somewhat problematic in itself. But that’s one thing we do love to do in our society. If we can’t attach a number to it, it isn’t “scientific” enough for us. This is called “scientism,” and has little to do with real science. It is a commitment to the notion that if it looks like science (that is, we can quantify it) it must be science. But we all know that data can be very unreliable; anyone who plays with data at all knows how misleading they can be. Further, not all things can be quantified. How, for example, do we determine that the brightest students are applying to Local College ? Because they have higher scores? But what correlation does intelligence, and especially the potential to do well in college, have to do with a number on a test? Or how do we suppose that intelligence can be measured by an I.Q. rating? How do we rate motivation, for example? Or maturity? There are so many factors that enter into college success that reducing probable success or academic reputation to a number is positively silly. But we do it.

And we do it to such an extent that the colleges are lying about the numbers to get better rankings in order to attract and keep better students — who apparently don’t pay any attention to the rankings in choosing their college. How ironic!  — and fitting somehow, as these schools should know in the first place that such rankings are bogus and their reputation should not in any way be tied up with such silliness.

Instead, the colleges should concentrate their efforts on cleaning up their collective houses and making sure their academic program is solid and challenging to their students. That’s where the reputation of the college ultimately lies. So that’s where the emphasis should be placed. But it isn’t, as recent studies by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have shown. The colleges are weakening their core academic programs rather than strengthening them. And this is where the heart of the scandal lies. It would appear that those who decide what is important in our colleges are focused on athletics and national “academic” rankings in such magazines as U.S. News and World Report instead of creating challenging academic programs designed to turn out the brightest alumni who will be successful citizens of a changing world.

In the end, it is our fascination with numbers and conviction that numbers make things more “scientific” and therefore more reliable that leads us astray — taken together with our thirst for competition, to come out on top  (or at least in the top ten). It is a large part of what Jacques Ellul called long ago “the technological imperative,”  which focuses on means rather than ends and on tangential considerations rather than central ones. It is a formula designed to lead to scandal at the very least.

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