College Ranking Time: It's Like Finals

College presidents and administrators across the country are engaged in the anxious yearly ritual of seeing where their schools fall in the newest spate of college rankings and buyer's guides. It's no small matter.

This year's high school seniors are getting serious now about what college they'll attend, and juniors are beginning to receive the deluge of glossy marketing materials, personalized letters, and videos essential to college recruiting.

Though they hate the word, administrators are "selling," and the annual howls of protest from the low-ranking (or the unranked) are sweeping across newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. Most protest that ranking colleges is presumptuous and impossible, given the uniqueness of institutions.

Alma College, which moved up in the much debated US News and World Report rankings, once spent $12,000 on a survey and effort to persuade other colleges not to participate. Reed College, a fine liberal arts college recently extolled in the Wall Street Journal, refuses to cooperate. Many members of my staff at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt. were chagrined at our ranking in one recent national publication, frustrated that our "scores" in various categories told a very incomplete story about the institution of which they are so proud.

But we are wrong to be rankled. We must all grapple with the business of higher education: marketing, selling, development, and the politics of funding. Lowly analogy that it seems, we have come to resemble car dealers in our initial relationship with prospective students and parents. Our marketing materials are increasingly sophisticated, targeted, and expensive. We advertise in the Sunday papers and hold open houses. We make claims about our value in terms that resist analysis and quantification. We bargain and discount through financial-aid packaging, and we ask for very large financial commitments.

Students and parents have become savvy consumers, and when we are confronted with uncomfortable information about our schools, we feel like the car salesman, crestfallen when customers walk in with Consumer Reports in hand.

Why shouldn't colleges be evaluated and even ranked? They should. But some commonly used criteria make little sense. "Reputation," for example, is measured by name recognition among college presidents. That's why I'm inundated with publications from institutions. My peers hope I'll at least know their name when the next survey crosses my desk.

Spending per student, retention, loan burden, alumni giving, and other indicators do provide comparable information about colleges. They just don't tell you everything. Marlboro College doesn't usually fare well in the "reputation" category. A degree from Swarthmore or Amherst will indeed be held in higher esteem by many than will a degree from Marlboro. But it says less about one's educational experience at those fine institutions than about their name recognition.

The peer reputation ranking doesn't tell you anything about Marlboro's reputation among graduate schools, where we send 60 percent of our graduates, well over the national average of about 26 percent. Nor does it speak to a college's reputation among such organizations as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which recently chose Marlboro as one of only six colleges in the nation that "show a certain genius in how they educate students."

Take another example: Marlboro ranks 12th from the top for the amount of student debt upon graduation. That looks bad, but what that ranking doesn't say is that our graduates have the lowest loan default rate of any school in our home state, and that includes some wealthy competition.

The same survey that makes us cringe at student debt indicates Marlboro is third in the nation for having the smallest classes, and fifth in alumni giving.

But guides serve some tremendously valuable functions.

First, since the essence of the college selection process is finding the best match between student and school, the rankings can help screen out the bad matches. For example, with 270 students, Marlboro is one of the smallest colleges in the nation - too small for many students. If that one piece of objective data helps us narrow our efforts to those who might legitimately apply, we have been rendered a valuable service, as have the students who might have otherwise trekked up to Vermont only to discover the place wasn't the right fit.

Second, having uncomfortable information made so public should spur necessary improvement.

Finally, college surveys and guides are an opportunity to begin a meaningful dialogue with parents and students. I welcomed the challenge recently posed to me over the phone by the father of a prospective student. With a new college survey at his side, he asked, "Why should we pay all of this money when you are ranked in the fourth tier of liberal arts colleges?"

I didn't argue with the ranking, but I told him the rest of our story. I noted that other guides fill in other pieces of who we are, such as our listings in Money magazine's Best Buys List and Loren Pope's Colleges That Change Lives.

I invited him and his daughter to visit and judge for themselves. They came, spent a day on campus, and seemed genuinely impressed.

We won't know for a while if his daughter will apply, but the father knows us now and the starting point of our relationship was a debatable college ranking. I'll take that opportunity every time.

* Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt.

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