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Editorial: Lean lessons gleaned from college rankings

Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 24, 1999
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First thing: U.S. World and News Report may well be wrong.

Indeed, whoever christened them the college kingmakers? It could just as well be the Princeton Review, or the Rocky Mountain News or T.V. Guide coming up with their own formulas to sum the indefinable elements of a good college.

So why buy it at all? Why the flurry when the formerly third-ranked MIS department is now deemed fifth? Simply put, because others buy it. Clearly there are many perusing the rankings so the rankings mean something - if not in accuracy itself than in the estimation of others.

Certainly in the estimation - however approximate - of a little magazine called U.S. World and News Report.

And for that reason, the drop in rankings of several colleges within the University of Arizona and the rise of another needs to be considered. What brought these colleges' rankings up or down, and what does that tell us?

The U.S. News & World Report methodology uses three steps. First, the colleges are categorized by their mission and region. Next, data is gathered for up to 16 separate indicators of academic excellence, and assigned a rating. Finally, the colleges are ranked against their peer groups based on their composite scores.

The criteria the survey uses as "indicators" fall into seven broad categories: Academic reputation; retention of students; faculty resources; student selectivity; financial resources; and liberal arts colleges only, "graduation rate performance." The magazine defines graduation rate performance as the difference between the proportion of students expected to graduate and the proportion that actually do.

The College of Law most likely increased its ranking from 36 to 40 because of alumni contributions. The generous donations provided by James E. Rogers have greatly improved the facilities at the law school and have helped to attract a superior level of law professors. The lesson from this: Money does matter when it comes to the rankings game. Perhaps the fervent fundraising among alumni isn't so far off the mark.

The MIS department probably suffered its drop in rankings because of losing several outstanding faculty members. The number of instructors in the department is far outpaced by the number of MIS majors for a current ratio of one instructor per 100 students, department head Olivia Sheng has said. This hurt the department's score in the academic reputation category. Here the rankings dip coincided with an unfortunate reality that needs remedy.

Certainly there is room for error in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. The criteria the survey uses may not be the best. Do we really think a school's ranking should be 1/7 based on alumni giving? Additionally, some schools may give inflated information.

Though the survey has its flaws, it may be right about one thing. Several of UA's colleges have lost ground competitively to at least one set of eyes on the outside. These colleges need to determine what circumstances might have precipitated this apparent drop and seek remedies. Perhaps a long, hard, look needs to taken at where the money is going, and rechannel it so it goes directly to academic criteria, rather than administration and extracurricular activities.