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Education Experts Offer Alternatives to College Rankings

While college rankings likely are here to stay, experts at a Washington, D.C., forum Monday offered alternatives to these very public benchmarks of higher education success — including one that factors in the engagement levels of students with major risk factors.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is developing standards that go beyond standardized tests or simple credit hours to judge the success of students and colleges, said Carol Geary Schneider, association president. Called Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), this framework includes electronic portfolios and other outcomes that can document student success and help refine higher education practices.

“What we need are new indicators that look at where we’re going, not where we’ve been,” she said at a forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Among those most likely to benefit will be underserved and at-risk students.

“Students least likely to be engaged are first-generation or transfer students,” she said. Yet these students are the most likely to gain under a new outcome-based system focused on high-impact educational practices. Other beneficiaries may be employers who regularly complain about college graduates’ lack of career readiness.

More than half of employers say college graduates are not well prepared for careers, she added, as graduates lack specific capabilities to succeed at work. “Employers are already deeply dissatisfied,” Schneider said. New hires often “are not promotable” due to lack of communication and other skills.

Her remarks came during a wide-ranging discussion of college rankings and accountability. U.S. News & World Report and other publishers defended their ranking systems, while higher education leaders offered a mix of praise and criticism.

Rankings may produce “perverse incentives for administrators,” said Luke Myers at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “What we need are better rankings.”

But Robert Morse of U.S. News defended their usefulness. “Rankings fill a void. Rankings have been the catalyst for better data for consumers.”

In an interview with Diverse, publishers offered varied views on whether rankings should include data on a college’s diversity or its performance record in graduating low-income students.

Such factors are part of the U.S. News system, Morse said. But Michael Noer of Forbes said diversity is a factor in his firm’s rankings only when specifically cited by students, whose views are part of the evaluation process. Otherwise, he told Diverse, “We don’t consider diversity to be a factor in what we’re trying to measure.”

Most rankings are useful only as entertainment, added Clifford Adelman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “It’s time to put rankings in the sports pages,” he said, and provide more coverage to international efforts.

He cited the Bologna Process, an effort by 46 countries to restructure higher education with common rules for degrees, credits and certification of student outcomes. Three U.S. states currently are exploring these concepts within specific academic disciplines, he added.

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