Posts Tagged ‘US News’

Last week, US News released the annual rankings for liberal arts institutions. It also released a bunch of other rankings, including “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” “Wait,” you may be thinking, “How different can the best liberal arts schools and the best liberal arts schools for undergraduate teaching be?” The answer is, “More different than you would think.”

You may recall that the overall rankings for national liberal arts institutions are strongly correlated with endowments. Apparently, the things that make a school good at teaching in the eyes of US News differ from those that make a school good overall. Interestingly, the methodology for determining best teaching is similar to that for determining the best graduate programs. Namely, they ask people about their perceptions: “College presidents, provosts and admissions deans who participated in the annual U.S. News peer assessment survey were asked to nominate up to 10 schools in their Best Colleges ranking category with a strength in undergraduate teaching.”

Like the graduate school rankings, then, the undergraduate teaching rankings reflect others’ perceptions rather than a formula that schools might try to game. It turns out that, unlike the national liberal arts rankings, these perceptions are not strongly correlated with a school’s endowment (only .226 vs. .78 for the national rankings). Although there are similarities, some schools are rated much differently in the rankings for undergraduate teaching. Hendrix College has the largest difference between its overall ranking (82) and its teaching ranking (29). Other schools that are at least 40 spots higher in the teaching than overall rankings include: Beloit, Wheaton, St. Olaf, Lawrence, Berea, and Wooster.

Of the schools appearing on both lists, Bowdoin looks the worst, with its overall ranking of 4 and its teaching ranking of 29. Many high-ranking schools in the overall rankings, though, don’t appear on the list of the top 30 teaching schools at all. Eleven schools in the top 30 national rankings do not appear in the top teaching rankings, the highest-ranked of which are the US Naval Academy and Claremont McKenna, tied for 9th in the national rankings.

The takeaway from all of this seems to be that a school’s reputation for teaching is not nearly as dependent on financial wealth as its overall rankings. I think that the different methodologies for different rankings are also interesting, since graduate programs are essentially ranked by those in similar programs, who would seem to know best. Undergraduate teaching is ranked in the same way, but US News is not willing to allow these peer-nominated rankings to make up its most publicized rankings like it is for graduate programs.

Of course, both types of rankings are probably connected only tenuously to actual student experiences at various schools, but by publicizing their overall rankings, US News ensures that they will keep schools focused on the small things they can do to try to climb the rankings, while an emphasis on the perceptions of others may allow schools to shift their foci to the bigger picture, considering what is best for students instead of for US News.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about gaming the US News system via your news feed.

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Even though I have been off the job market for quite a while, I still visit the US News rankings from time to time to look up information about various schools, such as enrollment or location.  During a recent visit I put in the name of my own school and was surprised to find that it now has an actual numeric ranking rather than being placed in the alphabetical “Tier 3” category.  The reason for the change was not, it turns out, that my school has gotten remarkably better since my arrival.  Instead, US News has decided that they have enough information about liberal arts schools to rank those that are in the top 75% instead of the top 50% as they have done in the past.

In the past, the top 50% made up Tier 1, the next 25% made up Tier 3, and the final 25% made up Tier 4.  In addition to numbering more schools, the bottom 25% is now designated with the more respectable “Tier 2” moniker.  For schools like mine, the symbolic meaning of this change seems quite large.  Students and job applicants who check these rankings when considering schools may be more likely apply to a school that is ranked between 100 and 200 than they would have been to apply to one in Tier 3, even though nothing about the school has changed.  Additionally, this revised ranking may be more impressive to those who have never heard of my school.

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An article from the spring issue of Contexts has just been posted on The Contexts Blog examining rankings of colleges and graduate schools (they’ve also posted a free link to the PDF version of the article).  Because of the importance many place on rankings, this is a fitting beginning for those embarking on the summer-long journey of preparing for the job market.  For some of us, the ranking of our graduate department will influence how we are viewed on the market.  Candidates from highly-ranked programs may be more likely to be considered for jobs in other highly-ranked programs.  On the other side of the coin, candidates may believe that the rankings say something about the experience of working at a particular school.  If it is highly ranked, there will likely be more pressure to publish and fewer rewards for excellent teaching.  If not, there may be less pressure to publish but also lower pay or a higher teaching load.

When deciding where to apply for jobs, rankings will likely be a consideration but it is important to remember that there is a lot more to a school than its ranking.  As I started my job search last summer, rankings were a primary concern.  I knew that I wanted a liberal arts job, but I also wanted a good liberal arts job, which I arbitrarily considered to be a school in the top 50 of the US News rankings.  That way, I figured that when I told friends and family members where I would be employed and they had never heard of it, I could at least say “It is one of the top liberal arts schools in the country” and they would be impressed.

Early in my search I also viewed rankings as an important marker of my graduate school success.  My graduate program is well-regarded among those who rank such things, so I figured that if I could get a job in a highly-ranked department the graduate students with visions of R1s would have to recognize that I had done well in my chosen area.  Similarly, I figured that professors would need to respect my accomplishments, regardless of how they had perceived me in the past and the department could proudly display my position on the web page so that students considering our program for the future could see that it is possible to graduate and get highly-ranked liberal arts jobs.

Over time, my opinion of the importance of rankings changed.  It would be easy to attribute this to the fact that the job market sucks and candidates should be happy to take anything they can get if I hadn’t, in fact, declined my first offer.  The experience that had the largest impact on my attitude about the rankings was actually looking up the mid-major I attended as an undergraduate and finding that it was categorized as a “Tier 4 National University.”  Tier 4! From the perspective of my job market self I had attended a terrible school, yet nobody bothered to tell this to my undergraduate self or any of my friends or family members.  At this terrible school I also had excellent professors and research opportunities that allowed me to get into a highly-ranked graduate program.

After this, the way I considered the rankings changed.  Yes, the rankings might reveal some underlying differences in resources or teaching loads, but I interviewed at a top-50 school and a Tier 3 school and, other than the size of the endowments (try not to giggle if a faculty member tells you his institution is “well endowed”) the differences in resources were negligible.  Because of this, the geographic location and student body of each school made the lower-ranked school equally compelling.  In the end, I didn’t get a job offer from the top-50 school and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had.  Maybe I would have accepted the offer that came with more prestige but a less desirable location and student body.  Regardless, I realized through this process that rankings are important for those who seek status above all else and much less so for those who seek a stable, enjoyable job with good pay and benefits.  For the record, nobody in my family had heard of either school.

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