Rare candor

Warning, non-football post below. Although there may be some obvious parallels with all the Big Ten talk.

There's been some blowup in the blogosphere over a Wednesday article from InsideHigherEd. I wanted to link this yesterday, but didn't have the time. The U.S. News and World Report college rankings measure selectivity, and are fairly easily manipulated. These facts are well known in academia, but less so among the general public. One of my pet causes here has been that, Rutgers University needs to acknowledge that it's a dog eat dog world out there. It has a top notch faculty, but surging enrollments have hurt the school's reputation, which has a tendency to snowball and compound in time. It may be dirty, it may be wrong, but RU is not in a position to take the moral high ground on any topic. Rutgers may not be able to fix its funding problems over night, but this is an area where a little effort could go a long way.

Manipulating the U.S. News rankings is a widespread practice; the point of this post isn't to single Clemson out. If you ever wonder why the rankings seem so unintuitive and arbitrary at times, there are worse offenders. A few choice excerpts:

The easiest moves, she said, revolved around class size: Clemson has significantly increased the proportion of its classes with fewer than 20 students, one key U.S. News indicator of a strong student experience. While Clemson has always had comparatively small class sizes for a public land-grant university, it has focused, Watt said, on trying to bump sections with 20 and 25 students down to 18 or 19, but letting a class with 55 rise to 70. "Two or three students here and there, what a difference it can make," she said. "It's manipulation around the edges."

Clemson has also transformed its admissions standards, more or less ceasing to admit full-time, first-time undergraduates who are not in the top third of their high school classes, and constantly re-assessing its SAT average throughout the admissions cycle, Watt said, so that admissions officials know whether they "have to increase the SAT score in the next round" of students.

Bringing about other changes has been harder, Watt continued, as she described what she called the "more questionable aspects of what we’ve done." The university has ratcheted up the faculty salaries it reports to U.S. News by about $20,000, which it has achieved by actually increasing spending (paid for largely through increased tuition) and by altering the way it relays the data to the magazine's editors. Clemson folded its benefit payments into the average faculty pay figure it reports to U.S. News, requiring the institutional research office to produce several different definitions of faculty pay for U.S. News, the American Association of University Professors and other surveys, Watt said.

Here's a big one, and why Rutgers calls its alumni so frequently:

In reporting institutional financial information to the magazine, she said, Clemson runs "multiple definitions to figure out where we can move things around to make them look best" in the rankings. Academic expenditures are emphasized and administrative overhead minimized wherever possible, within reason, she said. The university has encouraged as many alumni as possible to send in at least $5 to help bring up their giving rate, and hired a firm to find disconnected alumni.

By the way, this is one where the alumni really can make a difference. Giving even $5 somehow improves the university's academic prestige according to U.S. News. Perhaps Rutgers should do a better job of making this explicit point clearer to alumni that can't otherwise afford to donate money.

Now, this is really bad.

And to actual gasps from some members of the audience, Watt said that Clemson officials, in filling out the reputational survey form for presidents, rate "all programs other than Clemson below average," to make the university look better. "And I'm confident my president is not the only one who does that," Watt said.

And U.S. News incentivizes this behavior!

Taken together, the changes have had an impact on numerous U.S. News indicators: the proportion of freshmen who were in the top 10 percent of their high school class has risen to 42 from 34 percent; student to faculty ratio has dropped to 14:1 from 16:1; the retention rate of freshmen has climbed to 89 from 82 percent and the graduation rate to 78 from 72 percent. And as those last few results show, Watt said, many of the changes Clemson has made have helped students.

But many of the administrators and data analysts in the audience were clearly troubled by Watt's description of Clemson's approach, especially as she pointed out that the university has grown more exclusive (fewer than 10 percent of its undergraduates are first-generation college students) and has "favored merit over access in a poor state," sending tuitions rising."To me it’s a little unsettling what you’re doing," said one audience member. "You had a perfectly good institution" before.

Don't forget, that there's more than one way to play this game.

Take admissions. A college's acceptance rate, or the proportion of applicants it admits, counts towards its rank, and the more selective the college is, the better.

So some colleges try to increase the number of applicants they receive -- and turn down -- by waiving fees and dropping requirements. Some send out applications by e-mail, with most of the student's personal information already filled in. Others send out persistent e-mail appeals to high school sophomores, with breathless subject lines like ''Time is running out.''

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