Beyond the numbers

The U.S. News and World Report’s 2003 “Best Colleges” issue hit newsstands today. The magazine’s list of the top 50 schools in the country has recently been a hot topic on GW’s campus because for the last few years the University has not been on it. But do the rankings have an impact on the real world outside academia?

“I am concerned about our standing for the future,” senior Lizzie Johnson said. “If we’re ranked in the second tier, employers will see GW in a negative light.”

In the professional world, however, employers said GW’s second-tier status has hardly affected on-campus recruiting.

“It’s one of the better schools in the area,” said Liz Bodnar, campus development manager at KPMG, a worldwide consulting firm in McLean, Va., and a popular employer of GW graduates. “If we are unfamiliar with a college we go to the rankings, otherwise it’s really not a factor. The students we recruit from GW are some of the best.”

U.S. News has been ranking America’s best schools since 1983 and the top-tier list has become the authoritative register of America’s leading academic institutions. Administrators use the rankings as a benchmark for comparison to other schools and determining their own standing, said Bob Morse, director of data research for U.S. News.

Beyond that, however, officials said being in the first or second tier has little, if any effect on admissions.

“People in higher education pay more attention than the public does,” said Tom Myers, vice president for enrollment services at American University, another second-tier school.

According to a 2001 survey by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute for Higher Education, only 9 percent of freshmen said rankings played a role in their enrollment decision.

“Everyone threw the magazine in my face,” freshman Jon Dyer said. “I used it to familiarize myself with the choices. It gave me a guideline, but as I got more into (the admissions process), it wasn’t that important.”

U.S. News uses seven indicators to rank the quality of a school. Last year’s survey addressed academic reputation, student retention, faculty resources, admissions selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving and a category called graduation rate performance – the difference between the actual six-year graduation rate and the predicted graduation rate for a certain class.

The methodology is almost entirely a quantitative system; the magazine collects specific data from each institution. To determine academic reputation, however, surveys are sent to presidents, provosts and admissions deans at each school who are asked to rate their peers’ undergraduate academic programs on a scale of one (marginal) to five (distinguished). Last year, U.S. News sent out 4,087 questionnaires, 67 percent of which were completed.

Academic reputation is the most important category, accounting for a quarter of the school’s overall score. It is also the most controversial.

“No one can accurately rate 700 schools by themselves, which is what administrators are asked to do,” Myers said.

For schools whose academic programs are unfamiliar to other administrators, an answer of “don’t know” is acceptable and will not count against the school in any way. Nevertheless, some said the same schools are ranked at the top every year because their names are out there from past rankings, making it harder for those schools under the radar to move up the list.

Others said raw data cannot always accurately portray a university’s quality. For example, Myers said 20 percent of American’s students come from outside the United States. These students have no SAT scores but are often more academically qualified than a lot of U.S. students, he said. The rankings will fail to report what these students add to the campus.

“A school’s ranking, of course, should be only part of your calculation,” Morse wrote in the introduction to last year’s rankings guide.

“Researching the intangibles and mulling over your own needs are very important aspects of the process of choosing a college.”

Morse said attempts to lobby the magazine for a higher spot on the list have been futile.

“Administrators come to us and talk about their own schools, but ours is a statistical-based survey so it can’t be influenced,” Morse said.

That’s not to say it’s flawless. Five years ago, Myers and the rest of American’s administration opened the magazine to find they had been relegated to the third tier. The university demanded an explanation, and an investigation into the matter revealed that a vital piece of data was entered incorrectly into the database.

The magazine corrected the problem in the second printing of the issue, but to further prove the rankings’ insignificance, there was no change in admissions figures, and American met their predicted goal for the year, Myers said

GW’s admissions have not been affected, either. The University has recently become more selective each year.

According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ Web site, GW is one of nearly 25 schools with an applicant pool of more than 12,000, and one of a small number of private schools that accepts fewer than 50 percent of those applicants.

“GW has been increasing enrollment, applications, building new dorms,” Morse said. “If being in the second tier has hurt GW, I’d like to learn the definition of hurt.”

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