Pond Scum
Pond Scum photo by Max F. Williams

Happiest Freshmen?!”  OK, time to get in on the action – lets start a new ranking!   First, we’ll need some data.  That’s an easy one – most institutions post their “Common Data Set” on line, and that’s a really great source.   It has data on admissions, retention, enrollments, degrees, race, gender, you name it.  This is what institutions send to publishers of other admissions guidebooks and rankings – why don’t we get in on the free data?  The top three places to find them on an institution’s website are probably the Undergraduate Admissions, Institutional Research, or About areas.

Or we can go to publicly available sources, such as the U.S. government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the National Science Foundation’s “WebCASPAR,” and others.   The advantage of that is that we can download data by institution en masse.   Also, no one can claim that the data misrepresents them – hey, they provided it to the agency, right?  So what if the data are a little outdated.  We’re not building a rocket, just a racket.

Or we could send each institution a questionnaire.  Not exactly sure what to ask for or how?  Don’t worry, those folks are experts, we’ll just send a general question and they’ll call other folks on their campus, hold meetings, and jump through all kinds of hoops to be helpful, and eventually send us something that we can then decide if we want to use.  The kids at Yale have been doing this for years with their “Insider’s Guide.”  Well, off and on for years (when they think of it).

Maybe we could start a web site, and ask people to come enter data about the institutions they attend, or attended in the past, and then use that information for each institution.  That’s what RateMyProfessor.com did, and they got covered by CBSMoneyWatch,  and others!   True, I spotted at least three Swarthmore instructors who have not been with us for some time among those ranked, and a few others I never heard of (with 175 regular faculty members, how could I possibly have heard of everyone) but that’s the beauty of it, right?  Low maintenance!  And PayScale.com has become a force to be reckoned with.  Sure, their “average income” data for Swarthmore only represents about 2% of the alumni (estimating generously), but nobody bothers to dig that deep.  It doesn’t stop well-known publications like Forbes from using it.

OK, so that’s where we can get data for our ranking, now what data should we use, and what shall we call it?   We can take a lesson from the Huffington Post story about the “Happiest Freshmen.”   Now that’s clever!  And I’ll bet it generated a ton of visits, because it sure got attention from a lot of people.  The only data used in that ranking was retention rates – brilliant!  One number, available anywhere, call it something catchy (or better yet, controversial) and let ‘er rip!  (Shhh..  as far as I can tell, it was the press that provided the label – the folks crunching the data didn’t even have to think of it!)

I propose that we pull zip codes from NCES, sort in descending order, and do a press release about the “Zippiest institutions ever!”  No that’s no good – if it’s not something that changes every year, how will we make money from new rankings?!    Any ideas?

It’s the Number 1 time for Rankings!

Runners Crossing Finish LineA number of admissions guide publishers have released rankings recently, and the Godzilla of them all, US News, will be coming out shortly.  It’s always an interesting time for Institutional Researchers.  We spend a lot of time between about November and June each year responding to thousands (I’m not kidding) of questions from these publishers, and then in late summer and early fall we get to see what amazing tricks they perform with this information, what other sources of “information” they find to spice up their product, and the many ways they slice and dice our institutions.

The time spent on their surveys is probably the most frustrating aspect of IR work.  (Not all IR offices have this responsibility, but many do.)  We are deeply committed to providing accurate information about the institution to those who need it.  But so often guidebook questions are poorly constructed or not applicable, and the way they interpret and use the data can be bizarre.  While publishers may truly believe that they are fulfilling a mission to serve the public by providing their synthesis of what admittedly is confusing data, there is no misunderstanding that selling products (guides, magazines) is their ultimate purpose.  Meanwhile, we are painfully aware of the important work that we were not able to do on behalf of our institutions because of the time we spent responding to their surveys.

So the rankings come out, alumni ask questions, administrators debate the methodology and the merit, newspapers get something juicy to write about, and then we all go back and do it all over again.   Some of my colleagues get really worked up about this, and I can understand that.  But maybe I’m just getting too old to expend energy where it does no good.   It seems to me like complaining about the weather.  It is what it is.  You do the best you can – carry an umbrella, get out your snow shovel, hibernate – and get on with life.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe we should engage in criticism, conversation, and even collaboration if appropriate.  I just don’t think we should get ulcers over it.

<Minor Rant>That said, I do think it’s especially shameful for publishers to lead prospective students to think that “measures” such as the salaries volunteered by a tiny fraction of alumni on PayScale.com will be useful in their search for a college that’s right for them.</Minor Rant>

I think we have to acknowledge that there has been some good from all this.  There was a time when some institutions spun their numbers shamelessly (I know of one that reported the average SAT of those in the top quartile), and the increased scrutiny of rankings led to some embarrassment and some re-thinking about what is right.  It also led to a collaborative effort, the Common Data Set, in which the higher education and the publishing communities agreed on a single methodology and definitions to request and report some of the most common data that admissions guidebooks present.  In the past one guidebook would ask for average SAT, another for median, another for inter-quartile range, leave athletes out, put special admits in, and worst of all – no instructions about what was wanted.  And then people wondered why there were six different numbers floating around.  Unfortunately, once this set was agreed on and came into practice, guidebooks began to ask more and more questions to differentiate themselves from each other.  (And some still don’t use it!)  So it seems that a really good idea has backfired on us in a substantial way.

Another good to come from this is that some of the measures used by the rankings really are important, and having your institution’s data lined up against everyone else’s prompts us to ask ourselves hard questions when we aren’t where we’d like to be.  Here at Swarthmore, even though we are fortunate to have excellent retention and graduation rates, we wondered why they were a few points behind some peers.  Our efforts to understand these differences have led to some positive changes for our students.  This is likely happening at many institutions.  The evil side of that coin is when institutions make artificial changes to affect numbers rather than actually improving what they do.

On balance, I think that at this moment in time the guidebooks and rankings are doing more harm than good.  The “filler” questions that use institutional resources (do prospective students really want to know the number of microform units in the library?), and the proliferation of rankings that underscore the truly commercial foundation of this whole enterprise (Newsweek/Kaplan’s “Horniest” – really??) have gotten me a bit worn this year.

But we’ll keep responding.  And we’ll keep providing information on our website and through collaborative projects such as NAICU’s UCan (University and College Accountability Network) to try to ensure that accurate information is available.  As a parent who will soon be looking at these guides from a different perspective, I will have new incentive to see some good in it all.

So in my best live and let live spirit, I will share the Reader’s Digest description of the Big One – the US News rankings-  for my non-IR  colleagues here at Swarthmore in Part II of this post.  (IR friends, look away…)