Friday, August 22, 2008

Numbers Game or Values: The Heart and Soul of Higher Education

And speaking of the numbers racket in higher education (see my posting earlier today on this): US News & World Report has just released its latest ranking of American colleges and universities.

As the influential journal Inside Higher Education reports, this year, more than half of American institutions of higher learning chose to participate in this particular numbers game ( The rate of participation this year is, in fact, only 46%.

Participation by liberal arts colleges and universities has, in particular, declined significantly this year. As the Inside Higher Education report also notes, an organization called Education Conservancy has challenged the validity of the (self-reported) data on which US News & World Report bases its yearly ranking of colleges/universities, as well as the usefulness of this revenue-making survey as a means of choosing a good liberals arts college or university (on the Education Conservancy and its critique of the ranking system, see

In response to Education Conservancy’s critique of the US News & World Report ranking system, a significant number of university presidents have pledged to work with the organization. Presidents signing represent quite a few institutions of higher education with church roots, including Drew, Hendrix, and Philander Smith (all Methodist schools), as well as St. Mary’s College and Holy Cross (Catholic).

As an educator who has seen up close the mechanisms by which colleges groom themselves to rank well in this numbers game, the most significant question I would raise about this survey is in what way it measures the heart and soul of liberal education: that is, the extent to which a college or university inculcates values in its students. As a contributor to a discussion of these issues on the Arkansas Times blog notes today, the university now attracting so much attention in our state, about which I blogged earlier—UCA—announced today that it has risen two points in the report’s rankings of America’s best colleges (see and

When a school can have serious publicly evident problems with leadership, problems centered on questions of values, and still rise in the rankings of America’s best colleges, one has to wonder . . . .

Nonetheless, as Inside Higher Education notes, university presidents of participating institutions began releasing press releases at 12:01 today, as the rankings came out. As the report also observes, “Generally, those releases don’t come from those on the top of the lists, but from those wanting reporters to know that the colleges were at the top of some subcategory or made a top 100 list.”

Numbers game or values? Which is really the heart and soul of American higher education? It’s well worth asking.

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