Playing the Rankings Game

by Vault Education Editors | June 05, 2009

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For the past few weeks, the education world has been abuzz with U.S. News & World Report rankings. The biggest issue this year, as it is every year, is who gamed the rankings. In the law school world, Brooklyn Law School took the most heat when it inaccurately reported its student data, omitting information for part-time students when answering questions about "all students," thereby bumping the school higher up in the ranking. Brooklyn Law claims that this is what it's always done, explaining "We have for many years declined to provide U.S. News with LSAT/GPA information about our part-time students. We have done this openly and without deception. In the past, although U.S. News made part-time information available to its readers, it did not incorporate that information into its mathematical rankings model." Whoever is to blame for the blunder, Brooklyn wasn't the only law school whose rank was inaccurate in the 2009 Law School rankings. On the other end of the spectrum, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Hawaii (Richardson) fell significantly (both from the Top 100 to Tier 3) because of inaccurate reporting. In the end, U.S. News decided to publish the correct information for each school, but not to update their ranks.

In the 2009 U.S. News Business School rankings, the Boston University School of Management inaccurately submitted its employed graduate data, and the school suffered a fate similar to Nebraska and Hawaii.

Clemson under the gun

But that's all old news. Especially when Clemson University "outed" itself rankings gamer. The university's now-former director of the Alliance for Research on Higher Education, Catherine Watt, gave a presentation on Tuesday outlining the school's plan to become a top-20 research university and how it's already successfully jumped from No. 38 to No. 22. While the presentation may have been initially intended to outline the relationship between the school's efforts to attain top-20 status and its academic improvements, Ms. Watt was not so subtle about her discomfort with the strategy, going so far as to call it "manipulation around edges." Not surprisingly, she sparked a wildfire of controversy about the moral implications of Clemson's quest. The Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle for Higher Education described it as a "rather brazen" and effort to "willfully manipulate" the ranking system, and represented Ms. Watts as a whistle-blower. The university responded to the accusations in a statement (via the Poynter Institute website, in which it directly rebuts Ms. Watt's statements: "It's simply not true that all decisions at Clemson are driven by rankings." It continues, "We realize that we stuck our necks out when we adopted the vision statement … It makes us an easy target for a misinformation campaign."

Don't worry, Clemson. This will blow over. Everyone knows that schools pay attention to rankings and do their best to rate highly, however much they rail against the system between publications. In fact, your upfront and honest admission of the plan could in some ways be applauded, given the benefits that come from a top spot. And, after all, as Professor Richard Vedder of Ohio University said at the recent Rethinking Admissions conference at Wake Forest University, "It's anti-American to be anti-ranking."

European Union gets in on the fun

That said, it now seems that Americans aren't the only ones who care about rankings. The European Union is getting in on the action, and has started work on a global university rankings system of its very own. The CHERPA-Network consortium won the bid to conduct the feasibility study around which the system will ultimately be created. The new EU rankings should debut in two years--along with a new EU-based global baseball league and apple pie bake-off.

Filed Under: Education

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