By Monica Chapman
The U.S. News & World Report college rankings system deserves a D.
That's what Ohio University Distinguished Professor of Economics Richard Vedder believes -- so strongly, in fact, that he's created an entirely new rankings system, which will debut in Forbes magazine's print edition May 19. It hit the online edition Wednesday.
Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), developed a results-driven ranking system that defies traditional ranking systems based on such measures as admissions selectivity, financial resources and surveys of university administrators.
"Most rankings are based on the inputs, like rankings and scores of incoming freshmen. Other rankings are (largely) based on reputation as viewed by senior administrators or the amount of money spent on college," Vedder said. "We wanted to look at what percentage of students on campus achieved a high level of distinction in life after college."
The CCAP rankings examine four factors. Student evaluations on the Web site ratemyprofessors.com and the proportion of alumni in "Who's Who in America" each account for 40 percent of the overall score, while the percentage of students who win nationally competitive awards and four-year graduation rates each account for 10 percent. "You get some schools that no matter how you rank them, they are very, very high," Vedder said.
When all national universities were compared, Harvard, Yale and Princeton took the top three slots in both the U.S. News rankings list and the CCAP list. In the Midwest, schools such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern ranked well by all accounts, placing among the top 15 on both lists.
In other instances, there were large discrepancies in rankings.
Take Washington University in St. Louis. In the category for national universities overall, it scored 12th in the U.S. News ranking and 31st in CCAP's. And then there's the University of Maryland, which plummeted from 18th in the U.S. News rankings for national public universities to 50th in CCAP. On the other end of the spectrum among national publics, the University of Alabama climbed from 42nd in the U.S. News rankings to seventh on the CCAP list.
Among Ohio public universities, the CCAP rankings place Ohio University 33rd, behind Ohio State at 20th and Miami University at 24th. The three rank in the same order in the U.S. News rankings list, with Ohio State at 19th, Miami at 27th (the Forbes article mistakenly lists Miami at 67th) and Ohio at 54th.
Compared with all national universities, Ohio University climbed 30 points, from 112th in the U.S. News rankings to 82nd in the CCAP rankings. The new positioning placed Ohio University over several highly regarded schools, including the University of California at Davis. Vedder attributed the climb to above-average scores at rankmyprofessors.com and strong representation of alumni in "Who's Who."
"There is a culture that promotes leadership and achievement at Ohio University that reflects itself in a very high proportion of graduates who achieve vocational success," Vedder said. "We take our undergraduate instruction very seriously, and this shows up in good evaluations of instructors and courses. It seems that OU students genuinely have a high regard for the courses that they take and the instruction that they get."
Vedder isn't the only person with Ohio University ties to challenge the conventional rankings.
Joe Brennan, former executive director of communications and marketing, published a study on the U.S News and World Report undergraduate rankings just last week. Brennan's research examined 170 variables at 247 colleges and universities.
"Our research found that the methods used don't do a good job of identifying meaningful differences between colleges," said Brennan, now associate vice president for university communications at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
According to Brennan, the U.S. News rankings list comes down to two factors -- an institution's size and its measures of inputs and outputs -- and ignores other dimensions of higher education performance.
Brennan's biggest beef with the U.S. News rankings is the "peer assessment score," a subjective assessment derived from a survey of administrators at colleges and universities across the country.
"It's debatable whether presidents, provosts and admissions officers can accurately and objectively evaluate the quality of other institutions. And moreover, do their opinions matter to the readers of U.S. News?" Brennan asked. "If I'm a college-bound high school senior, does it matter what some other college president thinks of a school?"
This is the type of conundrum that the CCAP rankings model seeks to remedy.
CCAP is an independent, not-for-profit center based in Washington, D.C. Founded by Vedder in 2006, the organization was created to facilitate a broader dialogue on the issues and problems facing higher education institutions. Currently, federal student aid, faculty productivity and causes of higher education inefficiencies top the CCAP research agenda.
In the future, Vedder would like to expand the CCAP rankings model by incorporating more schools and fine-tuning its rankings formula to include a small dimension for research. The ideal rankings list also would account for students' learning gains during college, Vedder acknowledges, but so far, there is no accurate means of measuring this information.
"We ought to have some sort of value-added measure of learning, such as a (college) post-test. Maybe we should give tests when (students) leave to see if there was any advancement in their learning," Vedder said. "We don't have that information, so I have to use the cards that have been dealt to us."
Vedder has served on the Department of Economics faculty for 43 years. Among his many accomplishments, he authored "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much," published in 2004.