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January-February 2006 Selected Content

Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman

Putting College Rankings in Their Place

College presents intriguing and sometimes challenging questions to homeschoolers. Some homeschoolers choose college for the learning opportunities, social experience, credentials, and other reasons. Some decide not to attend, choosing instead to take responsibility for their own education, learn from life experience, and avoid the disadvantages of institutionalized learning. Some attend in response to pressure from family or society or because they haven't found a better alternative. Obviously, there's no one right answer.

However, it helps to understand current trends in American higher education. As homeschoolers, we have experience asking serious questions about the realities of institutionalized learning. It is not surprising to find that the realities of college are not as rosy as popular culture portrays them. While many colleges take seriously their mission of educating young people, they also need to respond to economic pressures. An awareness of how and why colleges often operate helps in deciding how to get the most out of a college or whether college is the best place to be.

This column discusses the effects of current trends in higher education, including the increasing emphasis on ranking schools, the use of enrollment managers, and questions about what students actually learn in college. Suggestions are given for how homeschoolers can respond. (Note that although there are differences between colleges and universities, for the sake of simplicity and readability, the word "college" is used for both.)

How is the increasing emphasis on ranking colleges affecting college educations?

Although getting into Harvard and similar schools is difficult, most colleges have to work to enroll enough tuition-paying students. This is reassuring for people who are worried about getting into college. However, it leads to competition among colleges with unfortunate results.

In recent years, increasing emphasis has been placed on systems for ranking colleges. One of the best-known is America's Best Colleges, published each year since 1987 by U S News and World Report. This system attempts to do the impossible: to determine which colleges are the "best." It uses a series of statistics such as the number of students who apply, the percent who are accepted, ACT or SAT scores of entering freshmen, percent of students who graduate, and alumni giving rate. Such factors are used because they can easily be measured, not necessarily because they tell much about a college or what one is likely to learn by attending.

College administrators strongly criticize the rankings but almost all see their future economic health as highly dependent on a good rank. This attitude allows the rankings to seriously impact on higher education. Among the results:

• The categories used to rank colleges and the relative weight given to each affect the values and actions of colleges seeking high ranks.

• Because colleges submit statistics in the same categories, the rankings encourage colleges to become more homogeneous. Colleges are penalized if they emphasize different qualities or if they choose to do things in ways that result in less favorable statistics. The rankings undermine the uniqueness of individual colleges that gives students meaningful choices.

• The U S News and World Report rankings promote a different dynamic on college campuses. A quarter of each college's ranking is based on student retention and graduation rates. This motivates colleges to admit students with very strong academic records. Grades are often inflated. (Some businesses have so little confidence in grades that they ask prospective employees for their SAT or ACT scores instead of trusting their grade point averages.) Disciplinary measures may be modified to minimize the number of students who are suspended or expelled. Colleges weaken their intellectual and moral leadership to increase the number of students who graduate.

Most colleges have decided that they must participate in the rankings or they will lose prestige, students, and, perhaps most importantly, money. However, Reed College in Portland, Oregon, is one of the few who have refused to participate, and it is thriving despite (or perhaps because of ) this decision. (See "Is There Life After Rankings?" The Atlantic Monthly, November, 2005, pp. 136-9.)

How is enrollment management influencing colleges?

One upshot of competition among colleges is their adopting marketing and management practices used by big business. This is not surprising; higher education is a big business. (Harvard has an endowment of $17.95 billion; even a less prestigious school like Northwestern University in Illinois still has $3.26 billion.) Three quarters of four-year colleges and universities now employ an enrollment manager to oversee admissions and financial aid. Often acting on instructions from the college president and trustees, enrollment managers use financial aid to enroll students who will either increase their school's ranking or improve their financial situation or both (although some colleges do use enrollment management responsibly to promote the mission of the college and assist low income students). One major technique is increasingly awarding financial aid on the basis of merit rather than students' financial need. Students are rated as having merit if (1) they scored well on the ACT or SAT, (2) they are well-to-do or so strongly motivated to attend the college that they will be willing to pay tuition and other fees, thus increasing the college's revenues and not requiring financial aid, and/or (3) they are likely to graduate. (Students from families whose income is over $90,000 have 1 chance in 2 of getting a bachelor's degree by age 24; if their family's income is $61,000 to 90,000, their chance is 1 in 4; if it's between $35,000 and 61,000, their chance is 1 in 10; if it's below $35,000, their chance is only 1 in 17.)

Using financial aid to ensure that smart and/or rich kids enroll generates more income for colleges in several ways:

• Colleges collect more money in tuition and fees and spend less on financial aid to students who could not otherwise afford to attend.

• Enrolling students with higher ACT and SAT scores and students who are more likely to graduate increases a college's position in the U S News and World Report rankings, thereby making the college more attractive.

• Having more successful and richer graduates increases the chances that the college will receive larger donations from alumni.

Of course, colleges don't want to publicly acknowledge these practices. Among the techniques used to camouflage "merit aid" are:

• Colleges admit low income students they don't really want to attend but do so in a way that ensures that the students will not enroll. Called "admit-deny," this is often accomplished by "gapping" a student, that is, offering them so little financial aid that they cannot realistically attend. The gap is sometimes as large as $35,000 a year. Why do colleges go through this charade? It helps their statistics and image. They can claim that they admit students regardless of their financial situation; that they are supporting equal opportunity, meritocracy, and diversity; and that it just so happened that lower income students chose not to attend.

• Financial aid is offered to merit students who do not need it and who may not even have applied for it to convince them to enroll in a given school rather than one of its competitors. (Colleges determine students' preferences from questionnaires the fill out before taking an ACT test or one such as the SAT from the College Board. Other actions, such as visiting a college campus, also indicate strong interest.)

For more on enrollment management, see "The Best Class Money Can Buy," The Atlantic Monthly, November, 2005, pp. 128-134. For a strong statement about how colleges are failing to provide opportunities for low income students and are preserving or even increasing the division between rich and poor, see "Does Meritocracy Work?" The Atlantic Monthly, November, 2005, pp. 120-126.)

What do students learn in college?

A key question is what students actually learn from college. Concerns about learning are increasing, partly because ranking, enrollment management, and increasing focus on money distract colleges from helping students learn. In addition, no one really knows what students learn. Information currently available includes actuarial or statistical data (like that used to compute the U S News and World Report rankings), ratings by faculty members and administrators of other schools, surveys of students and recent graduates, and grade point averages of current students. None of these indicates what students actually learn. ("What Does College Teach?" The Atlantic Monthly, November, 2005, pp. 140-143.)

Many people considering attending college find it helpful to ask what kind of learning takes place in college and whether it's what they want. A common assumption, of course, is that students learn important, sometimes even essential, things that can't be learned elsewhere, at least not as easily or as well. However, this is more an article of faith than a clearly demonstrated fact. Consider the following questions:

• The so-called "best schools" are assumed to provide superior educations. But how much does college add to the skills and abilities these students had acquired before college or could easily acquire through four more years of life experience? Could it be, at least in part, as is sometimes claimed, a matter of "diamonds in, diamonds out; garbage in, garbage out"? In other words, do the schools that accept the most promising students and end up with successful graduates succeed because of the strengths their students have when they enter the college and not because of what they learn while attending college?

• Would the students who went to "the best" schools have learned as much if they had gone to colleges with lower rankings? If there is something special about "the best" colleges, would mediocre students learn more at them than at the supposedly mediocre colleges they attend?

• Would young people who were given the time and money that college students spend getting a degree, and allowed to learn independently, learn more than they would if they attended college?

In a review of six recent books about higher education, Andrew Hacker (who teaches at Queens College) strongly recommends independent liberal arts colleges that emphasize teaching undergraduates. He points out that large universities focus on research, give little attention to undergraduate education, and do not reward faculty who are committed to teaching. He's convinced that as good an education can be had at many of the lesser known liberal arts colleges as at the more prestigious ones, and many accept at least 85 percent of applicants. (See "The Truth About the Colleges" The New York Review of Books, November 3, 2005, pp. 51-54.)

What We Can Do

• Be informed about current developments in higher education.

• If you want to attend a conventional college, consider either applying to schools that do not require ACT or SAT scores or work to improve your scores by using resources such as the Princeton Review's Cracking the ACT or SAT.

• If you want to attend college, you can focus on finding a college that offers the best opportunity to learn what you want to know, rather than concentrating on college rankings and prestige. If you decide you need a college degree, ask whether you need one from a high ranking, expensive college or whether you would be better off (and save a lot of money) attending a less expensive college. There are ways to get a good education through colleges that are not highly selective and top-ranked and therefore may be less influenced by rankings and more willing to award financial aid based on need rather than merit.

• Explore alternative ways to earn college credit and degrees. For example, the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), Advanced Placement (AP), and similar programs award college credit for what they already know or learn by studying independently. Many colleges accept such credit, allowing students to enter in effect as sophomores or juniors. Some accredited colleges grant degrees based credit earned through examinations and life experience. (See Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning by John and Moriah Bear.) Such approaches allow people to take responsibility for their own learning, learn in ways that work best for them, proceed at their own pace, and save enormous amounts of time and money. (For example, a CLEP test costs about $60 and can result in 3 or 6 hours of college credit, by far the least expensive way to earn credit.)

• Finally, remember that what a person learns and how effective they are generally are more strongly influenced by the family and community in which they grow up than by which college they attend or how much money they spend on education.


College continues to play an important role in American society and education. Young people who are considering enrolling in college may find it helpful to understand that colleges these days are concerned about much more than helping students learn. Some of these other concerns, such as rankings and enrollment management, may interfere with students' learning. Awareness of the realities of colleges can help young people decide whether to attend college and how to make the most of the experience if they do.

© 2006, Larry and Susan Kaseman

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