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More College Data, More College Confusion?

Colleges and universities continue to try to make an end run around US News & World Report’s annual rankings. Everyone in the education business knows that the rankings are great for selling magazines, but poor indications of what makes a college better than another. For in the end, it all depends on what one seeks. Choosing the college that fits is not something that can be boiled down to a formula or algorithm. The choice is deeply personal, so it makes sense to avoid the rankings and search for solid, objective information elsewhere.

According to a recent article in Education Week (registration required), colleges and universities are in the beginning stages of creating their own websites to give data about their “products and services” directly to the “consumer”:the prospective student. Five education associations are planning web portals to allow consumers to compare data directly, and then create their own ratings based on their own criteria. The five organizations include the National Association of Independent Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities plus the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, the Annapolis Group, the Education Conservancy, and the Association of American Universities.

It’s important to keep in mind that US News and World Report rankings constitute only one factor that is leading colleges and universities to disclose student’s test scores, graduation rates, and other information in a consumer-friendly format. The US Department of Education, led by Secretary Margaret Spellings, is another important factor. The same push for accountability that led to “No Child Left Behind” as a way to make meaningful comparisons of K-12 schools is leaking over into the realm of higher education.

Equally important is a dose of skepticism: with five different groups leading this effort, it’s hard to know which source will become the voice of authority. Or whether each of these groups will develop separate methods of reporting. Or whether they could ever replace the US News rankings.

Patrick J. O’Connor, the director of college counseling a the private Roper School in Birmingham, Michigan, and past president of the Alexandria, VA-based National Association for College Admissions Counseling, said many newly minted counselors have had no coursework in college advising.
Given their largely ad hoc, on-the-job training, and their ever-larger student caseloads, he said, “I would imagine that many of them see the rankings as a tool to help them in their first few years to sort things out.
Scott White, the director of guidance at the public Montclair High School in Montclair, NJ, and a 25-year counseling veteran, said he’s encouraged by the rankings-alternative movement, but he’s not sure the idea will take off.
“Having an effective list is important if it’s read and respected, but it’s going to be hard to get it off the ground,” he said.  “US News has really set the bar, not necessarily in terms of the quality of the information, but in terms of what people are reading.”

Assuming that these alternative data sources are successful, what would the availability of raw data mean for prospective college students and their families? Will more data mean easier choices? Unlikely, I think, because (once again) choosing the right college is a deeply personal process.

While greater access to data is generally a good thing, it is not necessarily going to mean that expert college planners (like me) are going to be out of a job. Think of investment advisors. There are all sorts of data about companies that are freely available, but most people trust their investments to fund managers or private investment counselors to do vet the choices and tailor investments to our particular financial circumstances and risk preferences. Or consider real estate agents: the fact that you can surf online and compare properties has not meant the demise of Realtors. And while you could read up on the law using online sources, you’d never, ever want to represent yourself in a lawsuit.

Actually, greater access to information will only increase the need for students and their parents to seek expert advice in navigating the college selection and admissions process. The data can only tell you so much. You may very well need the guidance of an expert to help you interpret that data in light of your personal abilities, interests, and aspirations.

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting
College Planning and Advising

Related post on the US News and World Report rankings.

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  1. […] This government effort (which comes out of US Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ 2006 report on access to information and higher education assessment) goes a long way in giving consumers raw information upon which to base more informed decisions about colleges and universities. As I explored in a previous post, many college and university associations are trying to find ways to get around the deleterious effect of US News and World Report’s annual rankings. Their aim is to provide more and better information directly to students and their families. This College Navigator site may actually meet the need for more and better data, obviating the need for these private efforts. […]

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