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Colleges Make Web-Based Response To College Rankings

Nov 16, 2007
Americans love rankings; educated consumers want to know what's the best on the market for autos, electronics, airline services, and hotels among other things. Educated businesspeople take high rankings seriously, loudly shouting independent praises through their advertising.

But college administrators dislike rankings. I understand some of the reasons why; it's almost impossible to compare dissimilar schools and the formulas and methodologies are considered non-scholarly by academics. College presidents have said that peer assessment means little when their peers base their judgments on the past perceptions of their schools.

This year, according to U.S. News and World Report, a record low 51 percent of college presidents completed their reputational survey in which they rank their peer institutions. Eight years ago, more than two-thirds completed it. This peer assessment represents 25 percent of a school's overall ranking. I could guess that the rankings would be less valid as more schools refuse to share information, as well as reliable statistics with the magazine.

However, you can't keep a good journalistic team down. U.S. News and World Report has been collecting and compiling this information for 24 years. Data collection and compilation for these rankings have been refined nine times, partly in response to institutional concerns. They have plenty of incentive; the America's Best Colleges issue and print guide are hot selling magazines. They would not be hot-sellers if they didn't try to be ahead of the curve and become more statistically valid.

Like it or not, these rankings are not going away. Not as long as colleges advertise high rankings as if they're a "good housekeeping seal" of approval. All educational institutions K-12, colleges and universities are operating in an era where parents and policy makers desire greater accountability and more statistical measures. Even if U.S. News quit publishing America's Best Colleges, another source would step up in its place. College and university presidents should consider themselves fortunate if Congress does not support that source.

One association, The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) launched their own Web-based tool called U-CAN, which stands for University and College Accountability Network. U-CAN is a nationwide effort to provide consumer information to parents and students, including financial statistics, about privately supported institutions.

NAICU claims that U-CAN is not a reaction to published rankings; according to public content on their site, U-CAN was created in response to public demand for comparable, concise, relevant, and easily accessible information. But I scrolled down and noticed that NAICU acknowledges that if "consumers, Congress, and the administration decide that the information on U-CAN is self-serving and of little value, the likely alternative is new federal reporting mandates."

So, NAICU is behaving much like a business association of firms in the same industry; let's try to regulate ourselves before the government steps in. U-CAN is NAICU's attempt at self-regulation. As someone who has been in the education site business, I was curious to see how U-CAN worked. I played with U-CAN, much like a parent or student would.

Here's what I liked about U-CAN:

+ It's free and there's no need to register. If I were a student, I do not become part of a junk-mail database to schools that are of no interest to me.

+ Navigation is clear and simple--if your heart is already set on a very small number of private schools.

+ U-CAN has statistics that I cannot find in other published sources, specifically the tuition history, four-year and five-year graduation rates, diversity indices, student indebtedness, a price breakdown for tuition and fees, average net tuition charge (after grants in aid), residence life and direct access to campus safety information.

Some of this information is available on other sites, but not as easily searchable; in the case of U.S. News, you have to pay a fee for premium access to obtain more detail beyond the top schools on their lists.

U-CAN is comprehensive, and makes it an admirable effort; it is considerable work to secure cooperation from so many schools (approximately 450, as I write this piece), let alone organize the data in a user-friendly format.

U-CAN is useful, but less than perfect, for considering private colleges.

The first problem is unmemorable domain names. The host association uses a dot-edu in its web address instead of a dot-com, dot-net or dot-org; that's an unusual practice because the sponsor is a not-for-profit association, not an academic institution. The domain for the U-CAN site is http://ucan-network.org. This surprised me when I typed ucan dot-org and got nowhere. They cannot use ucan dot-org; that domain belongs to the Utility Consumer's Action Network.

So, my first suggestion to NAICU is to buy U-CAN dot-org, dot-com and dot-net before someone else does--or find a new name.

Two other problems come from searches. You cannot return to a list of search results if you want to look at more than one school in a state. For instance, I selected New Jersey and got a list of independent schools in the Garden State. After I finished viewing the complete profile of one school, I could not return to my list. I had to do the same search again. In addition, I could not do a search across schools in more than one state.

The search problems can make U-CAN quite cumbersome and, by comparison, they make the U.S. News print and online guides seem more user-friendly, if I want to compare schools.

That leads me to another suggestion: develop a print version of U-CAN that groups the schools by state and type of school using the available statistics. A print version of U-CAN confronts a major advantage of other guides--they're also books--parents and guidance counselors are more techno-phobic than high school students. The most difficult statistic to format in tables is probably tuition history. U-CAN lists tuition charges for each of the past five years; that can be converted into an average tuition increase.

U-CAN is an excellent site, if you have already whittled down your choices to a small number of private schools. It's better designed to be your last stop for information gathering--after you've bought the U.S. News guide, read student school reviews and done your campus visits--instead of your first.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest
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