On College Rankings

Sharon D. Herzberger 
President's Corner
The Rock, Fall 2007

A mini-revolution is underway across America, with many college presidents feeling as I do and saying "enough is enough."

Americans love rankings. We are constantly creating and recreating lists of the top ten football and basketball teams, the top 100 communities in which to live, the top songs of the year, and even the top 10 worst-named college mascots (am I the only one who doesn't mind the Poets always being named to this list?). Creating and debating such lists is fun, and gives relatives and friends something to argue about when they get together. However, in most cases it would be folly to base important decisions on such rankings.

Unfortunately, college and university presidents have been guilty of lending credibility year-after-year to one of the most invalid, superficial, but widely read rankings—the annual listing of the so-called "top" institutions of higher education, published by a well-known national magazine. Each year presidents are sent the names of colleges and universities (the mailing I receive includes the names of about 220 private institutions, including Whittier), and we are asked to assign a score to each on a scale of 1 to 5, representing our opinion about the quality of the college or university.

When we get this list, most of us ask, "How in the world do I summarize my judgment of the strengths and weaknesses of my own school on a 5-point scale, not to mention assigning a value to 219 others," and "even if I could capture my institution's quality on this scale, why would I provide any number other than a 5 to this publication?"

This year, faced once again with this request, many college and university presidents rebelled and many others vowed to educate aspiring students and their families about valid means of judging the quality and value of the colleges and universities they explore.

On this issue, I have started my own mini-campaign. I point every college-bound student toward three particular benchmarks, which, as a parent of recent college graduates and as a president, I have found to be quite revealing of an institution's quality and value.

First, I advise prospective students to visit each campus of interest and find at least five seniors, to ask if they can identify three-to-five faculty members who know them well enough to write a personalized, in-depth letter of recommendation for a job or for graduate or professional school. A high number of "yes" answers usually indicates that classes are small, the faculty care, and the academic culture supports students' success. (At Whittier, visitors can even ask juniors this question, and the answers almost invariably will be "yes!")

Second, I encourage investigation of each institution's diversity and emphasis on developing cultural competencies. To be successful in the workplace, college graduates must be able to lead and work alongside colleagues who come from a variety of racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds. There is no better training ground than a school, and Whittier's status as one of the most diverse private colleges in America means that our students learn naturally both within and outside the classroom and are well-prepared for roles they will be called upon to play throughout their lives.

Third, students should ask each college and university about its performance on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). As a measure of the environment for learning on campus and a predictor of how much a student will grow intellectually and personally during the college years, the NSSE has no peer. I willingly share Whittier's own results with all inquirers.

Of course, since Whittier College scores highly on the NSSE (in fact, our seniors' ratings place us near the top of three of the five major factors), and since our class sizes are small (a healthy 13-to-1), our diversity enviable (42 percent of students are people of color, as are almost one-third of the faculty), and our faculty and academic culture supportive, I might be accused of some bias in advocating these measures. But watch carefully for news about higher education over the next year. You will see authorities other than me recommending such indices and, at the same time, dismissing the rankings and lists designed to sell magazines rather than educate the public.

And one final note. It is not just what we on campus are doing that ensures educational vitality and students' success; we need all readers to join in. I ask each of you to get involved—as a volunteer, as a donor to The Whittier Fund, and by recommending Whittier to a prospective student. Your continued engagement and support will help Whittier beat the rankings battle, and help spread the word about the valuable education students receive here.