By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - An elite California college's admission this week that it tried to boost its reputation by inflating the test scores of incoming freshmen has stoked a heated debate over the outsized influence and controversial methodology of commercial "best college" lists.
But behind the furor over the fraud at Claremont McKenna College is a crescendo of calls from academics, politicians and parents for new rating systems that would measure what really matters: how effectively an institution educates.
Reformers argue that for too long, American institutions of higher learning have been measured primarily by their prestige. The rankings with the most cachet, compiled by U.S. News & World Report, rely heavily on a college's reputation in the academic world, how much it spends on faculty and the caliber of students it attracts.
The fraud disclosed this week by Claremont McKenna - ranked the ninth-best liberal arts college in America by U.S. News - involved an administrator who falsified years worth of incoming students' scores on the SAT, a key U.S. college admissions exam, to make the college appear more selective.
Other American top-college publications try to move beyond selectivity. The Princeton Review bases its ratings on student surveys that ask everything from "Are your instructors good teachers" to "How do you rate the food on campus?" And the Forbes list considers how much debt students incur to pay tuition and how favorably they rate their professors in online forums.
International rankings, such as those produced by Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds, rely heavily on a university's reputation and influence, such as how often its research is cited in academic journals. QS also gives some weight to the views of global employers, who are asked which campuses produce the best graduates.
But by and large, the "best colleges" lists don't even attempt to measure what students get out of their years at college: Did they improve their critical thinking? Did they learn the subject matter? Can they land good jobs?
"Even the crudest measures of student outcomes, like job placement, are hard to find," said David Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, an advocacy group that is pushing for a new approach to ratings. "The way the system has developed, very few institutions have an incentive to ask, 'Are students learning?'"
Alternative rating systems are beginning to emerge, with the federal government, state legislatures and private groups all getting into the act.
President Barack Obama last week announced plans to assess the effectiveness of public and private colleges and direct federal aid to those that give students the most bang for the buck. The Department of Education is also developing a "college scorecard," akin to the fuel-economy stickers on new cars, that let parents and students compare competing institutions at a glance. The metrics to be used in the ratings, however, are still being developed.
CONCERN ABOUT PRESSURE TO 'DUMB DOWN'
Some states are further along. Minnesota has created an online "accountability dashboard" that uses colorful graphics to show how each college in the state system fares on measures such as the percentage of graduates who pass professional licensing exams, perceived academic rigor and even how many buildings on campus are crumbling.
Purdue University in Indiana publishes reports on alumni outcomes in such granular detail that prospective students can vividly picture their future. Those considering Purdue's landscape architecture program, for instance, might find it useful to know that one in four recent grads has been unable to find work - and that the average salary among those who are employed stands at $37,000.
Several states, meanwhile, have begun to rate colleges based on how many undergraduates are passing classes and moving steadily toward a degree. Campuses can often get bonus points for serving low-income students or awarding degrees in highly valued subjects such as math and science. Those that score well are rewarded with more funding. Those that do poorly lose out.
Indiana and Ohio have adopted this system. More than a dozen states plan to consider similar measures this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Skeptics fear that some of these new government-mandated ratings put too much emphasis on affordability and efficiency - in effect, rewarding colleges for pushing large numbers of students toward degrees cheaply and quickly. That, in turn, could prompt institutions to 'dumb down' the curriculum.
"If the goal is simply to reduce the cost of higher education and graduate more students, I can do that tomorrow at every institution in America," said Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University. The easy way to get there? "Require less," he said.
To counteract that temptation, there are also efforts to better measure - and report - how much students actually learn, as well as what they experience day-to-day on campus. More than 300 state colleges and universities, representing 60 percent of public four-year institutions in the United States, have pledged to post extensive data about their own performance on a website, CollegePortraits.org.
Prospective students who visit the site can find out that virtually every undergraduate class at the University of Colorado at Boulder has more than 50 students; that nearly 30 percent of freshmen at Northern Arizona University don't return for their sophomore year; and that given the chance to roll back the clock, just 72 percent of seniors at the University of Missouri at Kansas City would pick their school above other options.
Within four years, the online profiles will also include information about how well students are developing high-level skills, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test of critical thinking.
Several colleges have already begun posting results. Those include not just raw scores but also a measure of average cognitive growth from freshman to senior year - and how that stacks up against comparable campuses. The data indicate, for instance, that students at California State University at Long Beach improve their critical thinking skills far more than peers at similar colleges. Students at San Diego State do not.
Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News & World Report, said he would like to include such measures in his publication's rankings. "That's definitely something very important that's missing," he said. But few private colleges report such data.
Pressure on all colleges to step up disclosures are mounting in large part because of the soaring cost of college. Tuition, room and board at the most elite schools, such as Harvard and Yale, hover around $60,000 a year. The average private college approaches $40,000. And public schools are not always bargains: The average student attending his local state university faces a sticker price of $17,000, according to the College Board, a non-profit consortium of colleges.
Parents contemplating that kind of investment want to know what they're getting, said Tom Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that pushes for more transparency on college costs and outcomes. "There's a lot of skepticism" from parents and students, Lindsay said. "Universities are going to have to do a better job selling themselves."
But even when statistics about student outcomes are available, parents often don't know where to look. The College Portraits website got just half a million unique visitors last year, though millions of undergrads are studying at the public four-year colleges it rates. The non-profit groups that run the site do little marketing other than mailing posters to high-school guidance counselors nationwide.
"There isn't a shortage of data ... but I don't know that anyone has come up with a good way of harnessing it and making it easily digestible," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Without a one-stop shop for clear, comprehensive information, some parents fall back on easy-to-grasp lists like the annual "best colleges" rankings, Hawkins said.
As for prospective students, many never think to look for statistical measures of a college's value.
"I don't think any of that really crossed my mind," said Jordan Seman, a high-school senior from Denver who has applied to nine colleges spread out across the country.
Jordan, who is 18, has visited a few of her top choices in person. Others she picked after taking virtual tours and scanning course offerings online. Jordan says she hopes to do more extensive research after she learns where she's been accepted. "Otherwise," she said, "I'll just go with my gut."
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Eric Beech)