EdMedia Commons Archive

College Rankings: Changing the Admissions Process

Few decisions can have as much impact as the choice of which college to attend. How students navigate the college admissions process and the effects that system has on the academic life of a university was the focus of a conference held last January at the University of Southern California. “The Case for Change in College Admissions,” the new report resulting from that gathering, argues for widespread reforms in the admissions process, addressing everything from college rankings to merit aid. Jerome Lucido–director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice—and Lloyd Thacker—director of The Education Conservancy—discuss the report and answer questions from EdMedia Commons members this week.

Given that they are unlikely to go away altogether, what role should college rankings play in the admissions process, both for applicants’ families and admissions offices?

Lucido: College rankings can and should de-emphasize input variables, such as application counts, admission rates, test scores and grades and emphasize to a much greater degree output measures related to student learning and to mission attainment. This is much harder, more elusive, and the colleges must develop these measures much more effectively. This said, there are a number of ways colleges (and rankings) can do better, such as measuring how many first-generation students have we recruited, matriculated, nurtured, and graduated, what knowledge have students gained, and other key metrics–similarly treated—such as the number and percentage of students who complete their programs, and the extent to which our students (and their families, their employers, and their communities) attribute their growth to us.

Thacker: Rankings provide a great opportunity for colleges to demonstrate their educational values, integrity and leadership. Colleges can seize this opportunity by paying more attention to their “stance ON the rankings as opposed to where they stand IN the rankings” and inviting students, parents, their college communities, and society to think about and discuss the relevance of rankings to evaluating and promoting colleges. Colleges need to cooperate and lead a national conversation to help this country think its way out from under the influence of rankings.

You say that colleges should form admissions consortia that guarantee students who meet certain minimum criteria a slot in at least one college in that particular consortium. What are some of the current barriers that prevent colleges and universities from establishing such programs?

Lucido: This creative idea, not originated by us, came up prominently at our conference as one interesting possibility. Something like this is used in medical school admissions. The rankings are a huge impediment to such a system, as are the individual ambitions of campuses. Additionally, these will take a lot of thinking about how many consortia to have, how to handle membership, and the identification of common criteria to guide student admission to the consortia schools. These are daunting issues. However, we are seeking solutions that help colleges to cooperate in ways that serve the public interest. This is one intriguing idea. Others include reducing merit aid in uniform ways, reducing the recruitment of students with no chance of gaining admission, and competing over educational ideas and public good rather than over places in the rankings.

Thacker: Presidents and deans often raise the antitrust issue as an excuse for not engaging with other colleges in discussions about how they might be better served by collaborating rather than by competing.  However,[there are] ways to collaborate (antitrust exemptions) as well as legal language which seems to invite colleges to expand the exemptions. Again, the kind of college leadership and courage necessary to improve the landscape for all colleges can best be accomplished by colleges working together and spreading risk and investment. The orchestration of such test campaign is in the works.

In the report, you discuss how merit aid takes money away from those students who have more genuine need of financial assistance. Instead of merit aid, what tools should admissions offices use to attract the most competitive applicants they want to enroll?

Lucido: First, there are several problems with merit aid. When institutions use it to trump each other in recruiting desired students, the cost goes up for everyone. Next, the aid gets diverted from those who need student aid to those who do not. Third, institutional revenues decline because colleges are discounting their tuitions. With this in mind, and if colleges could agree to reduce merit aid in some uniform fashion, far preferable ways to recruit better students would be to get better at delivering superior educational programs; get better at articulating institutional mission, seeking students who are well-served by it and can contribute to it, and articulating that mission well to them; competing, in other words, on the basis of the merit of the educational program and the fit of that program with students rather than competing on price.

Thacker: “Attracting the most competitive applicants,” that phrase and notion are problematic. Colleges can and should do better at attracting “the most suitable students” (and not in excess) by being mission driven and market savvy, knowing what they do well, measuring and describing value added, and attracting those students most likely to go the greatest distance (learn the most) as students at their college. Colleges’ claim to distinctiveness can be validated by how well they identify and attract students with matching distinct qualities. This approach takes imagination, courage, and commitment to values–the same kind of attributes colleges are entrusted to instill in students. Students seek honesty and trustworthiness in communications and interactions with colleges; they are well aware and leery of colleges seeking more of the “most competitive” students!!

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.