Rank This

The language of college rankings is everywhere. At a recent non-Bates NESCAC football game, a student made this joking comment to an official: “C’mon, ref. You gotta give us that call to make it fair. They’re better in academics, and we’re better only in dining services.”

If you get the joke, you can imagine how deeply the college-ranking mindset has influenced the way families compare prospective colleges. Which is no surprise, says Jim Fergerson, director of institutional planning and analysis. In a newspaper op-ed last summer, Fergerson noted that “college rankings are an especially popular fixture of our society because they appear to offer simple answers to guide an increasingly complex, expensive, and life-changing investment.”

The public’s embrace of the rankings — particularly the ones published by U.S. News & World Report — frustrates colleges. For example, though the magazine claims a complex methodology, just one factor — instructional expenditures per student, really a proxy for institutional wealth — can explain up to 70 percent of the ranking score for the top 25 liberal arts colleges. “With college costs rising so rapidly, why should the rankings reward higher spending?” asks Fergerson.

Bates and other colleges are now evaluating their participation in future USN&WR rankings. At issue is not the flow of information to prospective students (in fact, Bates publishes far more information on its own Web pages than any of the guidebooks request). Rather, it’s about combating the notion that a college experience can be reduced to a ranking number.

To that end, Bates President Elaine Tuttle Hansen and 19 other peers signed a statement in September saying that college rankings create “a false sense that educational success or fit can be ranked in a single numerical list.” The presidents agreed “not to mention U.S. News or similar rankings in any of our new publications.”

Bates has also announced its participation in the U-CAN Network, a Web site offering information on more than 600 colleges and universities. “It is a start at getting families the consistent information that they want and need as they compare colleges and universities,” said Hansen.