Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Clearinghouse Makes It Easy To Track All The Rankings

When I last wrote about rankings I mentioned the growing number of different higher education rankings, everything from the top green campus institutions to the best party schools. I actually had no idea how many different rankings there were, but now I can find out much more easily. The Institute for Higher Education Policy has created a new clearinghouse on higher education rankings. Not only does it include rankings for US higher education, but it is international as well. My scan of the US rankings suggests that the focus is on academic quality, rather than a truly comprehensive listing of every ranking list on all dimensions of the higher education experience (e.g., the party school ranking isn’t anywhere to be found here). So this is a good start but I’d urge the IHEP folks to broden their definition of higher education rankings to make this list a true one-stop shopping location for all things “ranked”.

Library Budget Blues

In my routine foraging for higher education news items for Kept-Up Academic Librarian it seems the number of articles about the impact of the global financial meltdown on higher education has skyrocketed. The pain is being felt across the board. Whether it’s endowments evaporating, donations drying up, inability to provide financial aid, building projects hitting the skids or students dropping out the news is all bad. I imagine we are all getting the bad news on our own campuses (Pennsylvania IHEs that receive state funds are losing 4.5% of their funding) and hearing it from our colleagues. Mark Herring, Dean of Library Services at Winthrop University shared the bad news that PASCAL, Partnerships Among South Carolina Academic Libraries is in dire jeopardy. It’s budget was cut 90% this year and the prospects of reinstating it are grim at best. I’ve heard from at least two colleagues that they expect there will be layoffs at their academic libraries. I used to be at a private institution. While the tuition-driven budget was lean the lack of state funding meant state budget cuts didn’t affect us. But with so many students likely to face difficulty getting tuition loans, even the tuition-driven institutions could be badly affected in this economic crisis. It’s likely to get worse, but those of us who have been around for a while know that these downturns are cyclical. Things will improve eventually. For now, we are all likely to feel some pain.

Open The Library Up Now!

Ever worry that students will be up in arms over your decision to shut the library early the day before a holiday or when you close the doors when the rest of the campus has the day off? Well at Whitman College the Library closed early, at 10 pm, the night before Fall Break. Two students who weren’t happy about that took direct action and went right to the President’s house. They knocked on his door at 10:45 pm to complain. Guess what happened? The library re-opened at 11:15 pm. What did the president have to say? “Amid the challenges of higher education these days, it gives me great pleasure to know that our students have their priorities straight.” Nobody asked the librarians at Whitman College what they thought of it. (Reported at Inside Higher Education on Oct. 13, 2008).

They Finally Took My Advice

By now you have probably read somewhere that the American Library Association has made several of its publications more freely available. Both the current issue and archives of American Libraries and the weekly newsletter AL Direct have been set free of their shackles. No longer must a librarian (or anyone for that matter) be an ALA member in order to view full text in these two publications. I bring this up primarily because of a post I wrote on January 11, 2006 titled “ALA – Set This Newsletter Free“. It took ALA a while but I’m glad they finally took my suggestion. I guess if I’m going to criticize ALA when I think they need to change, I should also applaud their efforts when they do.

A Different Approach To College Rankings

It’s rankings time again. Just last week U.S. News & World Report released their Best Colleges 2009 rankings. If academic librarians think about college rankings at all I suspect that most take a peak simply to reassure themselves that their institution is still highly ranked, to see if it has inched ahead of that long-time competing institution or, heaven forbid, in hopes that it no longer languishes among the dregs of the third-tier institutions. Academic librarians hardly live vicariously through their institution’s ranking. After all, it mostly doesn’t impact on our work. But I expect there is probably a wee bit of smugness or sadness attached to that institutional ranking. While many professionals throughout the higher education industry think we’d all be better off if there were no college rankings, they are immensely popular with prospective students and their parents. Rankings are here to stay.

But if the U.S. News & World Report rankings leave a sour taste in our mouths – we know they’re bad for us yet we can’t live without them – why not take a different approach. Well, Forbes magazine decided to do just that. Created in cooperation with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity these new rankings focus on the quality of the education institutions provide, and how much their students achieve. Called America’s Best Colleges 2008 the rankings include 569 institutions, just a fraction of this country’s 4,000 or so colleges and universities. The Forbes methodology is quite different. It is based on the rankings of 7 million student evaluations of courses and instructors as recorded on the Web site (25%). Another 25% depends on how many of the school’s alumni, adjusted for enrollment, are listed among the notable people in Who’s Who in America. The other half of the ranking is based equally on three factors: the average amount of student debt at graduation held by those who borrowed; the percentage of students graduating in four years; and the number of students or faculty, adjusted for enrollment, who have won nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes. It seems like a rather strange methodology and the results reflect that. A large research university that is always in the U.S. News & World Report top ten is in the 60s on the Forbes list. Some small institutions were ranked quite highly.

Do an Internet search on college rankings and you will turn up an abundance of ranking lists, everything from best values to best party schools. One of the more interesting ones is the Washington Monthly’s College Guide which is an alternate ranking to the nation’s colleges and universities. It asks the question of whether colleges are making good use of our tax dollars? Are they producing graduates who can keep our nation competitive in a changing world? This ranking is better for a prospective student interested in a good liberal arts education. No matter which rankings you and your colleagues look forward to, keep in mind a point made by the folks at Forbes.

Admittedly, there is an inherent absurdity in ranking colleges and universities with mock precision from first to 569th. The sort of student who will thrive at Williams might drown at Caltech, to say nothing of West Point. And it is possible to get a “Harvard” education at the University of Minnesota, just as it possible to get a “University of Minnesota” education at Harvard. When choosing a school, it is important to match the student to the school.

So enjoy the rankings – they can be fun – but just don’t take them too seriously.

Update – for additional commentary on the Forbes Rankings see this and this at Inside Higher Education. The former is a defense of the rankings by Richard Vedder who worked with Forbes to create them, and the latter ridicules the Forbes Rankings for using RateMyProfessor as a data source.