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College rankings a riddle

Matt Shiffler for Case Western Reserve University

When Eric Kaler, president of Case Western Reserve University, thinks about the fixation on college rankings, he thinks about baseball.

The two are linked, according to Kaler. When debating who is or was the best player in the game, there are plenty of criteria to judge. Is the GOAT — that’s “greatest of all time” — the athlete who hit the most home runs? What about the one with the lowest earned run average or highest batting average? Those are all different people.

So, which one of them is the best? It depends.

“Same with a college,” Kaler said. “It depends on what you’re looking for.”

One way to compare institutions is by looking at college rankings. Love them or hate them, college officials can’t ignore what has grown into a behemoth in the higher education landscape.

“Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for all Americans,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said during an August address. “That system of ranking is a joke!”

While Cardona didn’t name names, it’s believed he was pointing at rankings produced by U.S News and World Report. The publication began publishing the rankings in 1983. Now, officials there say the lists help readers “make one of the most important decisions of your life.”

The latest installment judged nearly 1,500 universities offering undergraduate degrees using its own algorithm that weighs 17 different categories to varying degrees, including graduation rates, faculty resources and how much alumni donate.

Kaler’s CWRU ties at No. 42 in the best national university category. It’s the highest ranking in Ohio. Yet he said there aren’t necessarily a lot of tangible benefits.

Palpable rewards regarding research funding “are really not there,” Kaler said. Perhaps it could boost alumni and giving support, too, but Kaler believes alumni are already loyal. The biggest impact could be to lure in more applicants. But after the university received nearly 40,000 applicants last year, the institution “isn’t suffering for those,” he said.

“These are part of higher education life,” he said of rankings. “They are what they are. We just encourage people to look beyond them and be more thoughtful and deeper thinking about what’s right for their students.”

Stephen Ward works at Kent State University — tied for both the No. 213 national university as well as the No. 107 top public college — as the vice president of communications and marketing. He thinks it’d be “disingenuous” for a university to maintain it doesn’t care about rankings.

The difference comes, he said, in how aggressive institutions are in pursuing them. He’s seen presidents’ reports come in from out-of-market schools, college magazines from faraway campuses hit a desk.

That’s essentially campaigning. And it’s important, because 20% of the U.S. News ratings come from something called a peer assessment, where people at one university rank those at another.

Ward, who arrived at KSU in July, recently walked around its main campus with university president Todd Diacon as first-year students moved into dorms. The stroll turned into an unscientific focus group, of sorts.

Officials asked students how many other institutions they looked at (about three or four) and what drew them to Kent (how they felt on campus, personal impressions). Zero students mentioned rankings.

Messaging to prospective students more strongly highlights other things, he said, like academic rigor and faculty and staff. But it’s not to say rankings don’t come up. Indeed, they’re highlighted on the university’s website.

“If along the way we tuck in a message about our U.S. News rankings or how we stack up with other schools in Ohio or from some of the other states the students were coming from, you know, that’s what we do,” he said. “But it’s definitely not the be all, end all.”

Notre Dame College isn’t interested in chasing rankings, according to its president, J. Michael Pressimone. He doesn’t believe it’s worth the investment in resources to get there.

The South Euclid campus reported about 1,140 full-time students last fall. About 40% are students of color. It falls somewhere between №119 and №157 in the U.S. News list of best regional universities in the Midwest.

“If we focus on rankings, that means we’re not focusing on our students (and) each individual student,” he said.

Rankings weren’t even brought up during the college’s recent strategic planning process. Other numbers were, though. One of the college’s main goals, Pressimone said, is to focus on boosting its retention rates.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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