President Obama proposed a new system to rate college performance in an attempt to reform the college financial aid allocation process. This is in addition to the many, many ratings systems in effect already. Obama’s idea is that students who go to better-rated colleges will have more access to financial aid.
The problem is, you can be sure that colleges will manipulate their figures to score highly in the Obama ranking, just as they have with the other major rankings.
With this kind of money on the line, you can expect colleges to do every single thing in their power to manipulate the variables used to calculate their rating. In the pursuit of fundamental change, President Obama will in all likelihood create just a new way for college to juke the stats.
He shouldn’t be surprised. Colleges “adjusting” the stats in order to achieve a higher rating is a longstanding tradition in academia.
In order to rank highly on the U.S. News and World Report college ranking — by and large the most trusted resource for High School seniors attempting to ascertain an arbitrary and de-contextualized numerical value of a college — universities will do anything necessary to move the needle.
Above you’ll see a rough estimation of the internal algorithm used by U.S. News and World Report to calculate their number. The weights can be found here.
Notice that all of those numbers are arbitrary. A university seeking to rise in the rankings can manipulate those.
There’s already multiple cases of colleges juking and faking their stats.
George Washington university lied about their freshmen class rankings, worth 6% of the score. Baylor paid their freshman to retake the SAT, worth 7.5%. The U.S. Naval Academy allegedly inflated their admissions numbers, worth 1.5%. Allegedly, the Ivy League often has discrepancies between the numbers they report to U.S. News and the number they report to the Federal Government.
Oh, and college administrators love trashing rival schools and pumping up their own in the peer assessment survey that accounts for 15% of the score.
But the scores are also manipulated in less devious ways.
Take, for instance, the per cent of alumni who donate money to the university. This is worth a whopping 5% of the entire score.
Is it any surprise, then, that your university hits you up annually for a small $US5 donation? Or that the Senior Class Gift concept — where a large percentage of the senior class is asked to make a small donation to the college — has become widespread? Does the college really care if everyone kicks in a couple dollars when it won’t pay for the cost of mowing the quad?
While they certainly want your financial details, the reason for that annual small time giving is to juke the stats, to get as much of that five per cent as possible, and for a gain rather than a cost.
Increasing the other variables, of course, does cost money, but colleges are smart enough to realise how to optimise their value.
College academic guidance departments are fine with “super seniors” — extra tuition money! — but oftentimes have built-in policies discouraging students who take more than six years to achieve a degree, in order to maximise the graduation rate criterion (16 per cent!).
Did you have trouble getting into some of the big intro courses, or wonder why the seniors got all the seminars? Ever wonder why they didn’t just add another section of Biology 201 to meet the ravenous demand, or why some of the classes are just too massive for one professor?
Well, there’s no way in hell the school will do that, as it would jeopardize 2% of their score which is tied to keeping as many classes as possible under 50 students. It’s the same reason why there are so many seminar classes as well that meet once a week at some colleges, to beef up the 6% that rides on a high number of classes with less than 20 students.
They’re also trying to manipulate the faculty composition as well. They’ll only hire Ph. Ds in order to get as much of that 3% as possible, and make sure that even the un-tenured professors are full time despite low pay. They’ll do the accounting with these scores in mind, trying to lump as much as possible under “instruction, research, public service, academic support and student services” in order to maximise spending per student.
So needless to say, college ranking are largely arbitrary and all schools do everything in their power to manipulate their reported statistics in order to score higher.
With the full weight of the federal government’s financial aid at stake, what precisely makes one think that they won’t do that for the Obama ranking?
It’s already been suggested that the Obama ranking will reward schools that prioritise sending grads to Wall Street instead of, say, academic research or service positions. Ascertaining “outcomes” is an outstanding way to open up the system to manipulation.
The other two — opportunities granted to low-income students and “affordability” — may entail colleges pursuing accounting tricks or other manipulations.
Colleges are smart. They have economists and operations researchers on staff already, whole departments full of them. They will beat this rating system. And when they do, it remains to be seen whether the system will actually be better off.
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