Higher Education: The Status Game

President William Adams worries about "The Status Game" in college admissions and says "the unmeasureables matter far more."

By William D. Adams
Published in the Los Angeles Times Opinion Section
April 13, 2003

WATERVILLE, Maine--Most high school seniors across the country have received their admission decisions from the colleges and universities of their choice. Some celebrated. Others felt a deep and personal sense of rejection, which is troubling.

The higher-education choices offered in America are unrivaled in the world. There are nearly 4,000 community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, enrolling almost 15 million students. Over the last two decades, however, we have become less eager to celebrate this abundance of choice. Prestige has become the coin of the realm in college selection and marketing, and both prospective students and institutions are competing more and more aggressively for a greater share of that most rare and alluring of all commodities in higher education--reputation.

Part of the reason for this shift can be found on campuses like that of Colby College, where, in subtle and overt ways, prestige has become integral to our identity. Our students and their parents want to hear--and are told--that they are several cuts above the pack. Our college magazine features stories that foster pride of affiliation among alumni. Our handsome admissions publications imply, in statistics and in prose, that only top students need apply.

Part of the reason can be found in the ever-increasing horde of college rankings and guidebooks. The best known of these is the annual U.S. News & World Report guide to "America's Best Colleges," but there are many others. Some, like U.S. News, rely on statistical analysis to reach their conclusions, though the value of this methodology is hotly debated among educators. Others, like the Princeton Review's "The Best 345 Colleges" guide, combine statistics with commentary that is, at best, unrepresentative of students and, at worst, mind-bogglingly superficial. (The University of Vermont is No. 1 this year on the "Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians" list; Vassar tops the "Students Ignore God on a Regular Basis" list.)

But at least the Princeton Review does a few hours' research on campus, gathering anecdotes from students. By contrast, Kaplan's "The Unofficial, Unbiased Insider's Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges" is apparently written without benefit of a campus visit. Careful readers of the breezy report on Colby in these pages will discover, tucked away in the margin, the advice that, "If you love the great outdoors but don't want to become an alcoholic," you should attend another school. It's glib. It's entertaining. But does it serve any purpose beyond making money for its authors and publisher?

The best of the college guides can be valuable tools for helping students and their parents navigate the sea of choices. For instance, if a student knows that she wants to study at a small college in California and is leaning toward a career in oceanography, a guidebook will assist her in narrowing her choices. But no rating or ranking can tell her whether a college will suit her individual needs. Only careful research can do that.

Even though we know that rankings have only the slimmest relationship to what we actually do, college and university administrators have become deeply complicit in the ratings game. Schools that make SATs optional to boost the mean score of the class they admit surrender to the rankers. So do those that put a ceiling on numbers in seminars to affect average class sizes as counted by U.S. News. Complicity is a disservice to our students and prospective students, and it helps distort various public-policy issues affecting higher education.

Some things can be quantified, and certain quantities matter. Money, for example. Prospective students and their parents can reasonably compare the wealth of one institution to the next and the effect of that wealth. Other quantitative measures--student/faculty ratio, number of classes run by teaching assistants or average class size--can be helpful in forming general assessments of institutions.

But the "unmeasurables" matter far more: How extensive and deep are the programs of particular interest? What is the campus climate and culture? How committed is the faculty to teaching?

Answers to these questions do not lend themselves easily to simple scales or hierarchies. Like marriage, choosing a college is as much about complex questions of chemistry and fit as it is about abstract attributes than can be measured and summed up to produce a quantitatively satisfying outcome.

Can we regain a healthier perspective on the college admission process and improve the decision-making of prospective students, parents and institutions?

I think we can. But we need to be prepared to abandon the notion that the qualities of a particular institution can be summed up and translated into a prestige rating. As nice as it might seem to stressed-out students and their parents to simplify college selection to some cookbook recipe or statistical formula, we need to return the focus to where it belongs--on the individual needs and characteristics of the student, and on how those attributes align themselves with the complex attributes and opportunities that different institutions present.

For our part, college and university leaders must do more to resist the status game. We should speak out, clearly and often, about the traps of rankings and rating schemes, and we should insist that the helpful and necessary work of college guides and our own marketing efforts be focused on descriptions of what we actually do, not how we rate. We must resist the temptation to make important institutional decisions to improve our ratings and rankings. The good of our students and our institutions, current and future, must be the goal of our decision-making.