College Rankings Could Use an Upgrade

As prospective college students begin their search for the perfect school, U.S. News and World Report has released its annual ranking of American universities. Michael McPherson, a former president at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., suggests ways to make the rankings more useful to school administrators, parents and students.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past Friday, U.S. News and World Report released its annual list of America's top colleges and universities. College administrators and high school counselors are scrutinizing the school rankings. The list is reviled by nearly all of them, but they do read it. Michael McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago, an organization devoted to educational research. He's also a former president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he joins us now. Well welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. MICHAEL MCPHERSON (President, Spencer Foundation): Thank you.

HANSEN: Check out the list yet?

Mr. MCPHERSON: I did actually, yeah.

HANSEN: What do you think?

Mr. MCPHERSON: It looks a lot like it was the year before and I forecast it looks a lot like next year's list.

HANSEN: So what are your concerns about the list?

Mr. MCPHERSON: One concern is simply about its being a list that claims to rank institutions in numerical order, which I think is a level of precision that those data just don't support.

HANSEN: So they're measuring something, but you're not sure they're measuring the right things for colleges.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Well, I mean that's part of it. Actually, I think the measures they report are really quite useful measures. How big are the classes? How bright, on average, are the students? They though just don't have any measures of what the experience is like at the college or what the outcomes are like for students.

HANSEN: So are you saying that the questions that are being asked aren't the right ones and there shouldn't be a list anyway? How else could you measure colleges and universities that would be useful?

Mr. MCPHERSON: It's a big challenge to measure the most important things. Something like what is the college experience like? You know, we now look at colleges that bring in extremely talented students with very high SAT scores and high high school ranks, and they come out, certainly, they're still very talented students. But we don't really learn anything from U.S. News about whether the education they got during those four years actually improved their talents or enriched their knowledge.

The trouble is, it would be extremely hard for a magazine like U.S. News to spend the resources that would be required to figure that out.

HANSEN: Well, you have to talk to the students and U.S. News and World Report doesn't. They talk to presidents and provosts and admission teams...

Mr. MCPHERSON: The reputation ranking, right. It's all from insiders at other institutions. Talking to the students would be helpful if you could do it. But you could also think more about measuring some indicators about what students knew or were capable of doing when they arrived and what they knew or were capable of doing when they left, and see if there was improvement. That would require the cooperation of the colleges. And it would require big investments in figuring out how to make those measures work well.

HANSEN: But the colleges, would they do that? This list that comes out, it's used - I mean, for people who make it to the top, it's used in marketing for that college.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Of course it is. And the way U.S. News designs it, a whole lot of colleges make it to the top of some list because they have, you know, regional lists and classify different types of schools. They maximize the number of people who are in some top ten. You would not expect the leaders in the current rankings to be the ones who would go out and publish the kind of information I'm talking about. But it would be very interesting if there were some colleges that were not so well ranked put out more information that documented what a good job they were doing. You know, the colleges, in fact, have not been very good at acting like learning organizations themselves, at looking at the results of the educational techniques they use and then adjusting the educational techniques in response to what they learn.

HANSEN: Michael McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago. He's also a former president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thanks a lot for your time.

Mr. MCPHERSON: Thank you.

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