Colleges Resist the Pull of Published Rankings The search for the right college often starts with the rankings. But some schools now say they want no part of one of the most popular lists of top campuses. Should high school seniors use rankings when deciding where to apply for college?
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Colleges Resist the Pull of Published Rankings

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Colleges Resist the Pull of Published Rankings

Colleges Resist the Pull of Published Rankings

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

This summer, thousands of high school juniors and seniors and their parents will crisscross the country, visiting colleges and universities. For 25 years, perspective college students have turned to U.S. News & World Report's Guide to America's Best Colleges for help. The magazine compiles data from thousands of American schools on everything from selectivity, to how much money alumni give.

Now last week, administrators at many liberal arts colleges decided that the ranking system doesn't give students enough information or the right information. Several dozen colleges have decided to withdraw from the U.S. News & World Report rankings. If you are applying to schools, how did you choose where to apply? Are you starting college this fall? How did you decide where to go?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can comment on our blog, too, at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the show, we'll talk about the science of gaydar. But first, college admissions.

Kate Will is the president of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. She's also the author and head, excuse me, she's also the head of the Annapolis Group, a consortium of 121 liberal arts colleges from around the country. Kate Will joins us from our studio in Topeka, Kansas. Thanks for coming in.

Dr. KATE WILL (President, Gettysburg College; Chairperson, Annapolis Group): My pleasure.

SEABROOK: Kate Will, let's start with a wide open question. What criteria should students use to pick a college?

Dr. WILL: First of all, the student should think about match. Does this college provide the things that are going to enable me to be a successful student, to really thrive and grow and learn during my four years there? So I'd emphasize match, first of all. And a match means that different schools are different - are better for different people.

So the reason we're concerned about the rankings is that it kind of implies that only the, you know, top 10 or the top 15 schools are good enough to go to and adds to a kind of admissions frenzy and anxiety amongst students and their families about which school to go to. So we would encourage, the presidents of the Annapolis Group would encourage, students and families to take a good look at schools.

Think about what size of school they want. Think about what kind of majors they're interested in, and then make sure that school has those majors. Think about what the life outside the classroom is going to be like. Definitely visit, that's really, really important to visit the college because so often, it's really a matter of feel and your gut reaction to the place and to the people there. And that's the way you can tell that you're going to fit in. And honestly, I would urge students to trust their instincts on this.

SEABROOK: So tell me about this U.S. News & World Report listing. For people who aren't quite in the frenzy of choosing a college yet or for those who've been out for long enough, they may not know exactly what this is. It's a ranking of schools. There's sort of the university list and a liberal arts school list, and it uses criteria to weigh the schools. In fact, it ranks them one through whatever, 60, 70. What are the criteria that are most weighted by this list?

Dr. WILL: Well, you're right. I think it's important that students and families understand what U.S. News is and what it does. First of all, let me just say that it provides some very interesting and useful information. The concern we have about it and what I want people to know about it is that U.S. News is a business. It wants to make a profit. And this edition of their magazine is their most profitable because, I think, because people love rankings. They're so attractive. It's so, you know, interesting to think well, what's number one and what's number 10 and what's number 50 and so on and so forth.

But inherently, again, if you think of the concept of match, a ranking isn't going to help you because each individual person would have their own rankings based on the kinds of things they're interested in. You know, would you want a big school, again, do you want a small school? Do you want a film studies major or do you want be a chemist? You know, each one would be individual. So what U.S. News does is compiles rankings that are based on a bunch of factual indices. And that comes from information that the colleges provide themselves.

SEABROOK: Such as SAT scores, the top of the class…

Dr. WILL: That's right.

SEABROOK: …the bottom of the class, these sorts of things that the incoming students are. What else?

Dr. WILL: SAT scores, selectivity, student-faculty ratio, something called financial resources, something called faculty resources, graduation rate. So they use a lot of information that would be useful to students. And you can sort it on their Web site, which is very handy. There are other Web sites that do that as well, which I can mention in a minute, but 25 percent of their ranking, and I think the part that makes it the most, you know, sort of, sensational when it comes out on the news stands is 25 percent of a school's ranking comes from a survey that is sent out to all college presidents, all college academic deans, and all college deans of admissions - three people at each institution.

And, for instance, in the Annapolis Group at Gettysburg College, we get a list of 260 liberal arts colleges - 260. And we three people at each institution are asked to rank those institutions one to five. One, you know - I mean, five, the really top - the best; and one, the worst. And you can also say, don't know. Well, if truth be told in the Annapolis Group, I think, the predominance of the presidents who were present at the meeting just feel uncomfortable with this.

For one thing, we're contributing to U.S. News' business plan in terms of, you know, ranking one another. For second thing, it's very impressionistic. For third, you can't know all of those schools. So this 25 percent - by the way, all of the other factors are much smaller like one percent or five percent or three percent or whatever…

SEABROOK: So a quarter of the rankings are based on what people at other schools - officials at others schools think of any one school?

Dr. WILL: That's right.

SEABROOK: Well, let me ask you this, Kate Will. You said U.S. News & World Report is a business, as it is. Colleges and universities are businesses, too. And if you're a student, looking for unvarnished, something a little less polished information than the glossy catalogues of any one school, where do you turn for a sort of a more raw look at these schools?

Dr. WILL: Well, and that's an important question. Just a clarification, colleges and universities, almost all, except for - with some exceptions, are non-profit. So while we run ourselves very - in a very much business-like way, we don't have the profit motive that a place like U.S. News would have.

SEABROOK: Although, still the, you know, they still want to make themselves look good, attract the best students.

Dr. WILL: Absolutely. I mean, our mission is to educate students. So to attract and retain and educate students and to help them be successful is absolutely fulfilling what it is we were founded to do. So, yeah, we have that motive to be successful as institutions for sure.

SEABROOK: And without the…

Dr. WILL: So…

SEABROOK: Go ahead.

Dr. WILL: Go ahead. So if you ask me where could students get good information, I would say, yes, they can get good information from U.S. News. But we would caution all of us at the Annapolis Group, don't look at the ratings first because it'll tend to get your blood pressure up and get you all worried and am I going to get into the right school, and that kind of thing. And the truth is that America has a vast number of wonderful schools where you can be very well educated and they are diverse.

So there are historically black colleges, there are women's colleges, there are engineering colleges, there are big schools, there are small schools, and we're just - we have a wealth of wonderful schools. And these schools want to give students information and families information about themselves because, as you say, we want to attract students. Other places where if you didn't want to get it straight from the horse's mouth, you could go to Web sites like for instance, the secretary of education's Web site. It's called cool, C-O-O-L, College Opportunities Online Locator, and it's at nces.ed.gov. And all that information comes from information that the schools are asked to submit called the IPEDS. And you can sort, and you can look at graduation rates, and you can look at cost, and you can look at size and student-faculty ratio. So, that's a very helpful site.

The second one is the collegeboard.org. Again, you can do comparative stuff online, which I think is very helpful.

SEABROOK: Okay.

Ms. WILL: So, there're several places.

SEABROOK: Great. Let's go now to a very special guest named Abby Wetzel(ph). We heard her voice at the top of the hour talking about how hard it is to choose schools. Are you there, Abby?

Ms. ABBY WETZEL (Student): Yup. Hello.

SEABROOK: Hi there. You spoke to one of our reporters back in- I guess, it was February - when you were looking for a school. Tell us, you were looking then at Whitman College, Cornell College in Iowa, have you made your decision?

Ms. WETZEL: Yes, I have. I'm actually going to Macalester in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which is another one of my options at the time.

SEABROOK: How did you get to that decision?

Ms. WETZEL: You know, it's kind of hard to make a decision without visiting the schools. I was leaning toward different schools in the process. But really, when I went to Macalester, I really like the feeling of the school. And I like the fact that it's a very small school of 1,800 students, but it's in a city where I'll have the resources for my pre-medical aspiration. And I really felt that it kind of combines the internationalism that I'm interested, also the, you know, the large focus on academics that I definitely want to…

SEABROOK: Abby, you…

Ms. WETZEL: …wanted to find in a school.

SEABROOK: You went to a pretty exclusive high school, Loomis Chafee School in Windsor, Connecticut.

Ms. WETZEL: Yes.

SEABROOK: And I understand that your friends were looking at, you know, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, these schools, why did you choose not to go Ivy League?

Ms. WETZEL: You know, I think, those are great schools for some people. But I just didn't feel that that was the focus I wanted. A lot of the Ivy League schools have a large focus on the name of the school as opposed to, you know, the individual academic programs. And I'm sure once you get there that is - those are just as wonderful. But, I really like the feeling of Macalester and of the other schools that I was looking at because they were really - they were trying to appeal to what I was really interested in, as opposed to trying to get me to recognize their name (unintelligible).

SEABROOK: And did you use the U.S. News & World Report rankings?

Ms. WETZEL: I did not. I did not know.

SEABROOK: You never looked at them?

Ms. WETZEL: I actually - I didn't because I - my parents were very good about not putting pressure on me in terms of the, you know, U.S. News & World Report rankings of a school. Whereas, those were kind of pressures that I definitely felt from the school - with SAT scores and things like that.

SEABROOK: Abby, thank you so much for talking to us once again.

Ms. WETZEL: Of course.

SEABROOK: Abby Wetzel is a rising freshmen at Macalester College in Minnesota.

We're talking about how students decide which college they should go to. Coming up, we'll talk with a high school counselor and get her advice on how to choose.

If you're touring campuses and making this decision, tell us how you'll decide. The number is 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

I'm Andrea Seabrook. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

This is the time of the year when many high school juniors and seniors head out to college campuses, trying to narrow down their list of which schools to apply to.

Today, we're talking about how you decide between colleges. Do you look at the rankings? Do you visit campuses? Talk to friends? If you've already made the choice, how did you decide? The number is 800-989-8255 or e-mail us at talk@npr.org. Don't forget the blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

We're talking still with Kate Will, the president of Gettysburg College, and she's the chair of the Annapolis Group. That's the group of colleges that have just voted to pull out, or at least to recommend their colleges to pull out of the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Let's get another guest in here now. Joyce Smith is the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. She joins me here in studio 3A. Good afternoon.

Ms. JOYCE SMITH (CEO, National Association for College Admission Counseling): Thank you for welcoming me.

SEABROOK: Now, let me ask you both. From having listened to Abby Wetzel and talked about some of the ways that people choose colleges - let's start with you Ms. Smith - isn't this asking students to be awfully self-aware about what they're going to do in some of the most experimental years of their life?

Ms. SMITH: I wanted to say I really love Abby in her independence, in her college choices, in her approach to college admission. I also respect what her parents have done and I presume her secondary school counselor. There is great pressure from peers, from parents, to make the right choice about where you select colleges, and usually it is about the most selective institutions for the wrong reasons. So, I do so respect that Abby apparently didn't feel pressure, and that's one of the first things I think parents should learn about starting this process with their children.

Admissions is less predictable in terms of where you're going to get into. There are over 3.2 million high school graduates in the pipeline to apply to colleges, and I think the college process that parents knew when they applied is very different now. So I think there are tons of tools that students use, including Web sites. I highly recommend - and Abby said this as well as President Will - visiting the institutions they think they're interested in. And I caution people about getting caught up in the hype of where they're applying. But understand why they're applying to certain types of institutions. That's the most important piece of advice I would offer.

SEABROOK: Joyce, give me a sense of some of the questions a student might ask themselves or the parents might ask themselves going into this process. If they are looking toward - you just said, sort of getting to know themselves and what they want out of a school. What might they ask themselves?

Ms. SMITH: I think this is where the value of a good college counselor or a counselor in the school and the good connection with parents in talking about some of those choices. It drives me crazy when all of us end up asking kids, what do you want to major in and why do you want to go to that school, when in fact, most of them may know about colleges based on what's in a book or a Web site. But they have to visit and get a feel for it.

And I applaud those institutions, many liberal arts colleges that don't put pressure on kids initially to declare a major, and that gives them greater options. I think that's the best thing most counselors probably recommend for students when they're starting this process. Give yourself a range of institutions and options. Visit, read, become familiar, talk to alums, talk to currently enrolled students to get a better feel for the institution.

SEABROOK: And let me ask you, Kate Will, the president of Gettysburg College, what are you guys - what is your school recommending that students do as they're thinking about colleges?

Dr. WILL: Well, I love the advice that's been given and I, too, was impressed by Abby. She sounds like she made a thoughtful choice and she had really good reasons for, you know, the different combination of factors that worked for her, which was great.

What we do at Gettysburg College is, again, we are a small liberal arts college. We have about 2,600 students. And it's very much - each application is looked at personally and individually as a person, and we're even SAT-optional because we believe we can tell better how well a student is going to do from their high school grades because that's a day-after-day performance rather than a one-day test.

So we look at each individual and we even give individual tours for families, so that they can be tailored. It isn't, you know, whole group of people trailing someone who's walking backwards and talking about the college the way you usually hear about it.

And so we very much personalize. That's a liberal art's approach. Some people are going to be happier at a big university and that, you know, that's where they would thrive. The key thing I would say is find the place that's going to make you inspired and where you can learn.

SEABROOK: Kate Will is the president of Gettysburg College and the chair of the Annapolis Group. She joined us from our studio in Topeka, Kansas. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. WILL: My pleasure, thank you.

SEABROOK: And now, speaking of great college - guidance counselors, high school guidance counselors, let's turn to Fran Landau. She's the counselor at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. She joins me now in studio 3A. How are you?

Ms. FRAN LANDAU (Counselor, Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda, Maryland): Fine.

SEABROOK: Good. What do you tell students who come to you and don't know where to start?

Ms. LANDAU: We try to get students to be very realistic about what their college options are. So we usually start by trying to encourage them to take their SATs. And we look at their transcripts, we look at what kind of grades they have, the difficulty and the rigor of the courses they have taken today, whether they've taken honors or advance placement courses.

And we try to get them to find an appropriate match based on that, plus we want them to look at what are their goals and values, what are their academic interests, what colleges would fit their academic interests, what programs, what extracurricular opportunities might be available at colleges. And we try to get kids to bring all those factors into play as they look for colleges that are, what we call a good fit.

SEABROOK: Let's go to the phones. Let's hear from some of our listeners. And this, Rebecca in Lansing, Michigan. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

REBECCA (Caller): Hi, I actually went to Williams College, which is, you know, number one in U.S. News. But - I graduated in 2004. But honestly, I live in Michigan now, nobody's heard of it. You say you went to Williams and they're like, is that in Michigan? Like nobody's heard of it. The closest you get is, is that one in Virginia? And you're like, not William & Mary.

What I mean so, sort of ultimately once you graduate, I mean, the ranking don't really mean a lot when you're, you know, applying to a job and the person hasn't heard of the school you went to.

SEABROOK: And it's like the old joke about the the who(ph)? What do you call the guy who graduates last in his class in medical school? Doctor.

REBECCA: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, you know, I love Williams. It's a great school. I'm so glad I went there. But I mean, in terms of, you know, the rankings and all these stuff, I mean, really once you're out of college, it doesn't matter.

SEABROOK: Let me put this to you, Joyce Smith, is there just too much pressure about which school?

Ms. SMITH: I would concur 100 percent with what people have said so far. I would like for your listeners to appreciate that 75 percent of students graduating from colleges graduate from public institutions. We tend to focus so much attention on the most selective schools, and parents apply the greatest pressure because they do want environments for their students that are competitive in the name brand and the stickers in the back of the car window.

But when, in fact, some of those factors might end up being more important if the students are considering certain types of professions are graduate schools or professional schools where that undergrad experience might be critical to an admission's decision for graduate study.

I'm a graduate of a public institution in Kansas, and I don't know that I mapped out my path in terms of pursuing this kind of career. But often, I find that parents may find it's more important for them to be able to say where their kids are going to school then the students valuing that themselves.

SEABROOK: That's it, Fran Landau. So, you know, if the caller had gone to, say, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and she told that to people in Michigan, they surely would know what those schools were. So it makes the difference in some ways, doesn't it?

Ms. LANDAU: It does. I think, though, that the liberal arts colleges are much less known because they have such small classes. But they are truly wonderful college experiences. They are probably where you can get the best education for your dollar because you get so much more personal attention. But I think that our parents become obsessed with the rankings, partly because they don't know how to figure out.

These elite colleges are so expensive now. They're trying to figure out where they can get the best bang for their buck, so they are using rankings as the easy way rather than doing their homework in finding the best program for their child.

SEABROOK: Okay. Karen in Salem, Oregon. Hi.

KAREN (Caller): Hi, I would just like to say that I haven't heard very many people talk about money when going to these schools and choosing which school to go to. I went to Oregon State University and my husband went to Willamette University, which is a small liberal arts college in Salem. I graduated from college debt-free and we are still paying my husband's student loans. But I think we each had a great education. So I would definitely encourage people to check out public institutions.

SEABROOK: Do you concur, Joyce Smith?

Ms. SMITH: If I can share this, I have been sincerely impressed with a number of the private institutions or selective institutions with large endowments in their commitment to low-income perspective students. Many of the institutions - Harvard, Princeton, many others, Stanford - are making commitments to provide more grants for students under a certain income level with their parents. So I do applaud those institutions stepping forward in supporting students.

But I think the counselor, and the president, and others who I've spoken with probably suggests - the very advice that we've given to families for years: have five or six options, make sure you have a financially safe option that might include a two-year institution as well as a four-year public.

But I would hate for families to restrict looking at institutions based on cost alone because there are all kinds of financial aid opportunities available to students including loans.

SEABROOK: Jerry(ph) in Holland, Michigan. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for taking the call. Excellent program.

SEABROOK: It's a pleasure.

JERRY: By the way, I'm a guidance counselor in a small school (unintelligible)…

SEABROOK: Jerry, you're breaking up a little bit. I'm having a - you're saying you're a guidance counselor in a small school?

JERRY: Guidance counselor in a small school. Is that better?

SEABROOK: Yes.

JERRY: Okay. Sorry about that. And I have two twin seniors, both 18, and they're both having to choose colleges this fall, for this fall.

And, you know, one of the things that I feel is absolutely necessary is for parents to be, you know, involved with kids from, like, freshman year on and actually figuring out where their gifts and talents are.

You know, the school kind of has a holistic approach. They educate kids with math, science and everything. I think it's archival to the parents to figure out where their gifts and talents and abilities are, so they can be a little more focused.

You know, for years we've heard that it doesn't really matter, you don't have to choose a major. But now, you're paying so much money, and there is so much debt involved, especially at private schools, that to go to school and change your major two or three times is going to cost you so much.

And I think the kids need to spend some time freshman year, working through -and even sophomore year - just thinking carefully about where their gifts and their talents lie and that takes input from teachers. But it really takes a lot of guidance from parents.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call Jerry. Let me go to you, Fran Landau. You said at the beginning of your comments that students should be realistic about what their options are, and I believe you meant that, not just in money, but in terms of what they want to do and are good at.

Ms. LANDAU: I agree with that, yes. I think some students - some parents want to push upon students where they wish they would excel. I think, probably 25 percent of every incoming college freshman class thinks they're pre-med. But then, you take your first biology class and you realize maybe that's not an option or your first organic chemistry class.

So I think kids should really look at themselves realistically. What are their values, what are their goals, what are their academic interests, and I find some kids really choose for their extra-curricular interest. Is it a place I want to pursue being on the newspaper? Is it a place I want to play field hockey? And those interests can also come into play.

But I do agree parents are the best people to know their child well and help guide them towards a school that matches all of this.

SEABROOK: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

But let me ask you, Fran Landau, quickly, how long have you been a college counselor?

Ms. LANDAU: I've been at Walt Whitman as their college counselor 17 years.

SEABROOK: And have you noticed over those 17 years, a change in the pressure level that students are feeling as they're looking at schools?

Ms. LANDAU: Oh, yes. Actually, a student wrote about the stress at Walt Whitman High School in a book. So - yes. There's a great deal of stress, but I'm not convinced - and there's a great - and the kids today are really putting more pressure on themselves and taking harder courses than they used to.

So it's a wonderful thing, but I do feel there's a point where kids might burn themselves out. And it's better for them to really work on trying to develop themselves as a human being.

SEABROOK: Okay. Let's go back to the phones quickly. Kathleen in Lakewood, New York. Go ahead.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to make a point that - I work in a high school. I'm a high school principal. And very often, I've noticed with my students that if they visit the campus as opposed to using the Web sites or using the videos, they seem to have a little bit less chance of transferring.

They seem to find schools at which they really want to stay. And I think that helps their parents in that regard in the long run.

SEABROOK: Are you saying that maybe those glossy, you know, pamphlets about the schools aren't necessarily giving the right impression?

KATHLEEN: No. I just think that students have a tendency - they - for many that I speak to, they have a feel when on a campus as to whether not that's a fit for them. And they don't necessarily have that feel from the Web sites, et cetera.

So I don't know, they - I don't know what they see - students that, that sparked their interest. I'm not sure what it is, but I think the actual visit is worth the trouble.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Kathleen. That seems to be the consensus among our guests. Joyce Smith, do you think that there is too much pressure being put on students? Are they trying to pick a career at age 18?

Ms. SMITH: Well, something came to mind that I thought I would share with your listeners. A high school graduate may only make about $29,000 a year after high school. A person who graduates with a bachelor's degree has potential of making over $55,000 a year.

Someone who has a masters or professional degree may make 80,000 or more per year. The point is a college grad stands to earn 75 percent more in salaries than people who just go through high school. So I know we're not debating about the choice of going to college or not.

But that pressure to be successful, I think the pressure that parents want their children to have a better experience than they have in life, all of that certainly does add up. And the pressure that Fran was talking about also can apply to the factors that feed into an admission's decision: how competitive the grades are, how competitive the courses are, how rigorous, how many times they take - they've placed in exams or SATs or ACTs.

All of that feeds the frenzy of I got to do better, I got to have more because they're hearing their peers talking about test preparation, taking I.B., International Baccalaureate. All of these kinds of things add to that frenzy. So I would agree that if there is some way to stop the madness, parents, as we've heard on this broadcast, stepping in and really getting involved and understanding what their students are taking and why.

Counselors, offer all kinds of advice to families, and I wish that more parents would listen to a lot of the places that are fortunate enough to have great counselors like Fran.

But in the essay, writing samples are yet another piece that's been added to those selection of decision. But I think it's adding to the pressure that students feel.

SEABROOK: Joyce Smith, it sounds like your final message is just go, major in something.

Joyce Smith is the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. And Fran Landau is a counselor at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. Thank you both very much.

Ms. LANDAU: Thank you.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

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