College rankings get new kid on the block

Minneapolis Star Tribune

The annual rollout of U.S. News & World Report magazine’s college rankings has come and gone in recent weeks amid the usual winces and sighs of relief in collegiate offices — and amid growing controversy.

The best-known of America’s college report cards is under fire by the institutions it grades — so much so that the magazine’s editor, Brian Kelly, felt obliged to respond to the criticism with a video message on its Web site. The critics fault the magazine for overreliance on subjective assessments by higher-ed administrators, and for measures that have the effect of equating a large endowment with academic quality.

Later this month, several dozen college and university representatives will assemble at Yale University to discuss plans for a more “educationally relevant” alternative to the U.S. News rankings. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities is also about to launch what it considers a superior set of data about colleges, at

To the extent those efforts represent heightened accountability to students and society, they are welcome. Enterprises that are engines of the American Dream owe prospective students a greater degree of transparency than they often deliver.

But our guess is that more comparative data won’t calm either the stir over what constitutes quality and value in American higher education or the arms race for higher rankings among colleges. The demographic dip that’s just ahead in the number of American high-school graduates is enough to keep schools maneuvering for higher rungs on any credible ranking ladder.

So what’s a student or a parent to make of the U.S. News ranking, or any other? President Linda Hanson of Hamline University in St. Paul (No. 9 on the “Masters Universities/Midwest” list, the same as in 2006 and 2005) offers what we think is sound advice:

Don’t ignore the rankings. But don’t make them the basis of your college choice, either. Use them to compare College A to College B in things like number of students in average classrooms, or percentage of a class that graduates in four years, or the share of alumni who think enough of their alma mater to become donors.

“That may get you to square one or two,” Hanson said. “But what should really clinch the decision of the student is that campus visit, that opportunity to meet with faculty and sense what a place is like. … If it doesn’t fit for the student, it’s not going to be workable.”

The above editorial appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Wednesday, Sept. 5.