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Statistics for Business and Economics: Excel/Minitab Enhanced
Heinz Kohler
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Statistics in the News: Chapter 20 Index Numbers

Under Fire: The Listing of "Best" U. S. Colleges

More often than not, and despite textbook warnings to the contrary, index numbers are used to quantify something that is in fact unquantifiable. The Chapter 20 discussion of the United Nations' Human Development Index provides a vivid example. Given the availability of hundreds of possible criteria, how can we possibly determine the "best" country in which to live, along with precise comparative rankings of all other countries on earth?

The listing of "America's Best Colleges," published annually by U. S. News & World Report, provides another example of people summarizing complex circumstances by a few index numbers that could just as well be constructed in totally different ways. Consider what Bard College president Leon Botstein had to say on the subject: "The criteria are ludicrous. It is the most successful journalistic scam I have seen in my entire adult lifetime. A catastrophic fraud. Corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and revolting." (Bard College was ranked #38 on the 2001 list.)

Call it what you want, the magazine's best-colleges issue (the latest one hit the newsstands on September 17, 2001) has provided massive sales ever since its debut in 1983. But the annual listing is also coming under fire. Thus, Amy Graham--who oversaw the list at U. S. News & World Report for two years until her resignation in 1999--recently argued in the Washington Monthly that the manner in which the magazine ranks colleges "defies common sense" because it "pays scant attention to measures of learning or good educational practices." As she sees it, the rankings primarily register a school's wealth (along with the generosity of its alumni giving), a college's reputation (the opinions of college and university presidents who rank peer institutions make up 25 percent of an institution's score) and the achievement of the high school students it admits (as measured by College Board scores).

Table A shows the 2001 ranking categories for U.S. Liberal Arts Colleges conferring bachelor's degrees, along with the weights used to derive the overall ranking.

Table A U.S. News & World Report's 2001 Methodology for Ranking U. S. Liberal Arts Colleges

Ranking Category Category Weight(percent) Example:
#1 Ranked Amherst College
Academic Reputation 25 4.8 out of 5
Faculty Resources 20 Rank 21
Retention Rate 20 Rank 1
Student Selectivity 15 Rank 4
Financial Resources 10 Rank 13
Alumni Giving 5 Rank 1
Graduation Rate Performance 5 96%
Total 100 Rank 1

First consider the meaning of the various ranking categories:

  • Academic reputation was determined by surveying the presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions of all colleges. Each individual was asked to rate peer schools' undergraduate academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those individuals who did not know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly were asked to mark "don't know." A school's score is the average score of all the respondents who rated it. Responses of "don't know" did not count for or against a school.
  • Faculty resources were measured by a variety of factors, including the percentage of classes under 20, the percentage of classes of 50 or more, the overall student/faculty ratio, and the percentage of faculty teaching full-time.
  • Retention rate was measured by the percentage of freshmen who returned to the same college the following fall as well as the percentage who ultimately graduated there.
  • Student selectivity was assessed by SAT/ACT 25th-75th percentiles of the incoming class, the percentage of freshmen from the top 10% of their high school class, and the college's acceptance rate = total admitted/total applicants.
  • Financial resources were measured by the average spending per full-time equivalent students on instruction, research, public service, academic support,
  • student services, and institutional support.

  • Alumni giving was measured by the average percent of undergraduate alumni of record who donated money to the college. The percent of alumni giving serves as a proxy for how satisfied students are with the school.
  • Graduation rate performance measured the difference between the actual six-year graduation rate for students entering in the fall of 1994 and the predicted graduation rate, based upon characteristics of the entering class as well as characteristics of the institution.

Criticizing the kind of indexes created with the help of the above criteria is child's play: We can criticize the raw data because of high nonresponse rates in the surveys that produced them. (For example, the academic reputation question produced a nonresponse rate of 33 percent.) We can argue that the ranking categories overlap. (For example, academic reputation is supposed to measure the faculty's dedication to teaching and, thus, the likelihood that students learn what they need and turn into satisfied graduates. But student satisfaction is also supposed to be measured by the retention rate, alumni giving, and more.) We can argue that entirely different categories should be used. The list goes on.

And most of all, we can argue that a different weighting scheme could easily produce different overall rankings. Just consider the last column of Table A and ask yourself what would happen if faculty resources had been given a weight of 80 percent, with correspondingly smaller weights for the other categories. Would Amherst College (the author's academic home) retain the rank of #1? We can seriously doubt it.

Sources. Adapted from Alex Kuczynski, " 'Best' List For Colleges By U. S. News Is Under Fire," The New York Times, August 20, 2001, pp. C1 and C9; Rachel Hartigan Shea and David L. Marcus, "Special Report: America's Best Colleges," and Robert J. Morse and Samuel M. Flanigan, "How We Rank Schools," U. S. News & World Report, September 17, 2001, pp. 89-116; and

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