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College Rankings: Could There Be a Better Alternative?

College Rankings: Could There Be a Better Alternative?

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Image courtesy of Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

I wrote an article about four of the more recently issued rankings of colleges and universities. I originally planned to write a follow-up article about those rankings selecting a few groupings of colleges and universities that are not ranked in the top 25 or so.

The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed. After all, what college wants to brag that it was ranked #175 or #250, even if there are 5,000+ colleges and universities in the United States?

Then I read a blog post written by Carlo Salerno, an education analyst and blogger that I follow. His post took a different approach. He believes that the college rankings are awful and proposes a crowd-sourced approach.

Mr. Salerno agrees with me that no one is likely to care about rankings after the top 30 or so. He wrote that it’s better to find a way to flag the good schools and the bad schools. He suggests crowdsourcing former students’ reviews and aggregating them like Yelp’s ratings.

Mr. Salerno suggests creating a website which aggregates former students’ responses to six or eight indicators that measure their satisfaction with certain experiences. He suggests ranking factors such as affordability, availability of night or weekend offerings, availability of certain student services such as childcare or tutoring, the learning experience, overall customer service, and job placement. Mr. Salerno also proposes that only currently enrolled students with an active student email account at the school be allowed to rate their schools (later, he includes former students in his article, so I am not sure if the current students is a starting point or not).

He believes that it is the only relevant option. After all, Mr. Salerno writes, who are you more likely to trust, a researcher whose opinions about what is good that may not match your beliefs or the aggregated responses from thousands of current and past students?

Mr. Salerno acknowledges that there are challenges that would have to be managed. Shoppers care about so many services that there will likely be calls for other services to be included in the surveys. Also, it’s well known that people with negative experiences are much more likely to be responsive to surveys than people who are satisfied with their experiences.

Mr. Salerno ends his proposal with a comment that we already have a service like Yelp and that despite the flood of data available from the Department of Education, consumers have their own specific issues that may or may not reflect any of the data that are collected and published.

I think Mr. Salerno’s last comment may be his most relevant. I outlined the methodologies of the four surveys mentioned in my article for the primary purpose of educating readers about the differences between the surveys. As I noted, the top colleges and universities are generally the previously rated top colleges and universities, regardless of the methodology.

The methodologies also favor institutions that serve full-time students in the 18-22 age range who attend traditional universities. Institutions that serve working adults, generally older students who are working full-time and attending college part-time, are not highly ranked because of the researchers’ biases on what quality measures of colleges should be.

Asking current and former students to rate their institutions on measures that reflect relevant services could lead to 4.9 ratings (out of 5 stars) for adult-serving institutions. This type of rating could occur since their current and former students likely selected those schools for reasons far different than those institutions picked by seniors in high school and their parents.

As simplistic and feasible as Mr. Salerno’s recommendation appears, it’s not likely to be well received by the establishment of ranking entities, academics, policymakers, and traditional institutions. Educational institutions ranked at the top want to stay at the top.

Institutions at the top of the traditional rankings value 90-95% graduation rates because they selectively admit students whose academic accomplishments and accolades form their high achievement personalities. They wouldn’t understand that current and former students of an adult-serving institution might give their institution a 4.9 out of 5.0 rating for academic support and tutoring, even though its six-year graduation rate was 35%. The lower graduation rate is most likely impacted by their students’ ability to attend issues, not the schools’ failure to provide courses or advisory services on a timely basis.

Is there a difference between the U.S. News & World Report rankings (selected only as an example, not as the one that I believe is most relevant) and the Yelp-like consumer survey ratings as proposed by Mr. Salerno? There’s a vast difference in methodologies, but I argue that Mr. Salerno’s proposal might be more believable by consumers.

Kudos to the U.S. Department of Education for not using the College Scorecard as a ratings system! In my opinion, the Department does not collect enough information to allow consumers to make meaningful comparisons between institutions that serve non-traditional students.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce used College Scorecard data to form its rankings on the ROI of accredited colleges and universities. Similarly, reporters at the Wall Street Journal analyzed college affordability using College Scorecard data and comparing graduate debt with graduate earnings.

Those analyses are less complicated and more transparent than the ranking systems. However, they use data reported by institutions to the Department, and sometimes that data is misclassified or misreported. It may take time for everyone to be comfortable that all of the data is comparable and accurate.

Maybe Yelp will follow through with Mr. Salerno’s suggestion. Given their ability to access millions of Americans, they may be able to recruit enough participants to make a rating system work.

They might also be able to convince institutions whose rankings don’t measure up to their perceived student satisfaction to help them recruit participants. I hope so. It would be nice to see a consumer driven ratings system.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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