Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

How Useful Are College Rankings?

Indiana University Office of Admissions

Most of the teacher colleges in Indiana have agreed to cooperate with the NCTQ study in spite of warnings from Indiana's college accrediting agency.

US News and World Report publishes one of the most respected college ranking guides in the country and millions of prospective students and parents turn to this publication every year to help them decide what college meets their needs.

But this year, the publication’s choice of research partners has sparked protest from many of the nation’s leading teacher colleges, with a number of schools refusing to respond to inquiries from the publication or its partner, the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Many schools are accusing the group of using the college ranking guide as a pulpit to promote a political agenda.  They might not be too far off the mark.

The NCTQ website clearly identifies itself as an advocacy group. Specifically, some education schools have vocally accused the NCTQ of intentional rigging its reports in support of its so-called reform agenda. For example, here is an op-ed piece which appeared in the Carbondale, Illinois based The Southern from Kenneth Tietelbaum, Dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“Despite its pretense of being nonpartisan, the organization is ideologically driven and intent on portraying higher education programs as generally inadequate or worse. While the teacher education program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale did not fare as badly as some other ones from around the state, their assessment of our programs is bad enough (in its conclusions and its methodology) to warrant a public response.”

US News and World Report has responded to criticism of its partnership with NCTQ by writing op eds, asking the group to create a “Transparency Center”, and soliciting endorsements from school officials (including Indiana’s own Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett).  They have also been putting pressure on many of the most uncooperative public universities by issuing public records requests.

So how accurate is the NCTQ report?  We found that many studies released by the organization are substantially misleading.  For example, a 2006 report entitled National Reading Study claims to be an objective analysis of 72 literacy education programs in 35 states.  In reality, the study adopts a single reading education model referred to as the “science of reading”.  This model is 11 years old and based on the results of a single report Congress commissioned in 2000 to study literacy.  In their study, NCTQ researchers base the majority of their findings on how closely a university adheres to their chosen method, ignoring all other possible approaches.

One IU official with whom StateImpact spoke says this isn’t the way to assess anything.  He says most colleges try to track a students performance once they leave the university and enter the workforce.  This gives them a better ability to modify their teaching approach based on past student’s successes or failures.

Actually, this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered problems with college ranking guides.  Earlier this year, WFIU’s Alex Roy reported this story.

DePauw University, with a total enrollment of just under 3,000 found itself in unusual company on the Princeton Review’s list of top party schools. The private school ranked 15th on the list… that’s one spot ahead of Indiana University.

We were actually going to follow this up with a month of in depth embedded party reporting, but then we realized that Greencastle, the home of Depauw University, contains three bars, two liquor stores, an Aldi and a Walmart Superstore.

University of California Berkeley did not make the Top 20 party school list.  An informal survey of the number bars located within a six block radius of the Berkeley campus revealed that there are literally too many to count.  We lost track somewhere in the upper 20s.  This isn’t even mentioning the enormous number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the area.


  • Sven Juice

    These college rankings have been used as an excuse by university presidents to raise tuitions (and the salaries of their faculty and themselves). Either noting their high ranking or setting an objective to get higher; tuitions keep going higher, far in excess of the cuts from state support and inflation.

    • franscico

      Most school are increasing tuition because they are losing state funding, so the jacked up price compensates for it. The University of California, Berkeley received a 70-80 million dollar cut from it’s funding (the entire UC system is losing $500 million) because California’s economy has not been so hot (and public education was the source of spending chosen to be cut).

  • franscico

    These college rankings change pretty often; however, the top 20 generally stay the same, and for a reason. While your local college may provide a good education, there is a difference between them and (of lack of better terms) “higher tier” colleges. A college like the University of South Florida, while having a good engineering program, is not on par with a school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now obviously there are arguments to whether or not a place like MIT is worth the extra tens of thousands of dollars, but that’s not for me to say; the result speaks for itself.

    • lostintranslation

      I attended several colleges (Cornell and CWRU among them) along the way to my degree. At Cornell, I had teaching assistants (graduate students) who got their undergraduate degrees from such schools as MIT. The differences in innate abilities of students at different schools was non-existent (the great difference is ambition, not ability), but the differences in education were spectacular. At MIT, students were presented with far more material than at Cornell and at Cornell far more material than at CWRU. The better the school, the more the faculty expected from the students, and the better the education. Students rise to these expectations. This is what makes schools great.

  • Guest

    College rankings DO matter. A degree from the Unversity of Ohio is not as good as a Harvard degree. To some degree tuition rates reflect this. But it’s more true that talented students with a good work ethic can find scholarships or some other way to top tier schools. Moreover, who actually pays full tuition? Most don’t. And to presume that everyone deserves a college education is crazy. Top tier schools are top tier for a reason, they have standards. And aparently U.S. News and World Report is taking a chance on their standards – we’ll see how it plays out.

    • Spinoza

      I would say that Ohio University is not as good a university as Harvard (and no one has the massive endowment they do) but that does not legitimate the claim that “a degree from one university is not as good” as another. Degrees are earned by individuals and there is a wide range of difference between them depending on many factors other than the ranking and selectivity of the university.

      In graduate school I recall two students from Harvard. One is now a tenured professor at a good state university the other was asked to leave at the MA level. We had students from state universities who walked circles around some others from the Ivy Leagues.

  • lostintranslation

    The top colleges don’t change much from year to year, because everyone knows who they are. The rankings would be suspect if Harvard came out #11. Indeed, the rankings appear to be designed around the top schools. However, the rankings do change as you move down, not necessarily, and indeed probably contrarily, because of any actual change within the year of any actual difference between the schools, but rather because USN&WR wouldn’t sell magazines if the rankings remained constant. In other words, the rankings are designed least of all, if at all, to indicate the actual quality of schools and most of all, if not entirely, to sell magazines.

  • totoyun

    US college rankings have big advantages to seduce many foreign students, who want to study in US. In general, students and their parents in Asian countries would evaluate the quality and reputation of US schools based upon the ranking system. Of course, the reports cannot say correctly, but can be a reference to select a school.

  • RickSheldon

    Its a tough challenge to “rank” all of our institutions of higher education. Personally, if we leave this task to a commercially motivated entity such as US NWR, w/o independent oversight that has clout, then all bets are off. What happened to the NRC rankings? They were flawed but provided some gage of comparison. I would really like to hear the Secretary of Education weigh in…

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