In May 1994, I came to Washington, D.C., one of thousands of college students who descend on the nation’s capital each summer, to intern with nonprofit organizations, on Capitol Hill, and with national media outlets. My home for the next three months: U.S. News & World Report.
Each weekday morning, along with half a dozen other interns, I reported to a small, windowless room in the basement of a sleek office building on N Street. From there, we would all stare at monochrome computer monitors as we made phone call after phone call to college campuses around the country.
Our task was to track down missing numbers, or in other cases, double-check questionable figures for the massive data collection that composed the secret sauce for the magazine’s annual college rankings guide. It was often a thankless task made better only by the camaraderie of twentysomethings, the stories we’d sometimes get to help out with for the magazine, and of course, the paycheck (when so many internships are unpaid).
We often joked that with a few keystrokes we could perhaps reorder the rankings, putting any of our colleges in first place, knocking out the perennial favorite, Harvard. (Two of the interns were from Yale and Princeton, respectively, so they would have loved it.)
Little did we know at the time that over the next 30 years the annual rankings, which were only 5 years old at the time, would become so influential that the number-checking task we performed would become so crucial to keeping colleges honest.
By now you probably know that when the latest edition of the U.S. News college rankings came out earlier this week, Columbia University plummeted from No. 2 to Number 18 after one of the university’s own math professors earlier this year questioned numbers submitted by the school. On Monday night, I was interviewed about Columbia’s drop in the rankings on CNN Tonight with Laura Coates. Coates is a former federal prosecutor and was surprised to learn the numbers that go into a list with such influence weren’t audited in any way.
Of course, if it were “Podunk U.” (a favorite on College Confidential for a no-name college) that submitted dubious data, I’m sure U.S. News would have sniffed out a problem long before the rankings were published. But this was Columbia, an Ivy League institution! No one seemed to question the “incorrect” data in two fields for Columbia: class size and the number of faculty with the highest degrees in their field.
One reason no one did is because we all expect Columbia to be among the top schools. That’s the so-called face validity of rankings. Few of us would buy magazine rankings that didn’t list Columbia in the top, nor would we buy rankings that remain the same every year—which is why U.S. News constantly tweaks its formula so there are a few changes on a regular basis near the top of the list.
The U.S. News interns, summer of 1994, with Bob Morse, who still leads the rankings.
The media firestorm about Columbia’s fall from grace this week reminds us of the dubious nature of the ranking in general.
Columbia is not suddenly a less desirable institution because it fell 16 spots. Yet when looking at the rankings, too many parents, students, and counselors think there are differences between schools ranked 10th and 30th or 40th and 70th. The differences are so subtle for the typical applicant—and most are applying to a set of schools within a certain range anyway.
Given their place in our culture, the college rankings aren’t going away no matter how much university leaders wish they would. I asked Colin Diver, former president of Reed College, which refuses to participate in the rankings, how they could be fixed.
Diver told me the “the perfect rankings system would consist of multiple equally influential rankings, each based on one important characteristic of higher education.”
So, there would be rankings of instructional quality and learning gains, social mobility, academic influence, affordability to low- and middle-income students, institutional wealth and spending, student selectivity, racial and ethnic diversity (of faculty and students), contribution to community wellbeing, and contribution to students’ future thriving and wellbeing.
No matter how much we desire to have a “best” college or university, Diver told me that no “single ranking, no matter how well constructed and impartially administered, could possibly capture the rich variety” of higher education—in terms of varying missions of colleges but also in consumer preferences.
Other attributes of Diver’s “perfect” ranking system:
It would published by an impartial non-for-profit organization, such as Consumer Reports—and not the government or a for-profit organization, like U.S. News.
And after a numerical listing of, say, the top 25 schools, each ranking should report the remaining schools in unranked clusters to rid the rankings of their “faux precision.”
If you were rankings czar, what would you want to see in a new set of rankings? If you’re a parent, student, or counselor, how do you use the rankings in the college search? Hit reply and tell me. I’d love to hear from you and might include your response in a future newsletter.
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For your calendar: Wednesday, September 28, at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, is the Next Office Hour. Our topic:how colleges and universities can better meet the needs of an increasingly “nontraditional” learner population with a flexible and personalized learning design that is student-centered.
You’ll hear from a panel of people with deep experience adapting programs to serve the needs of today’s learners—from recruiting adult students to incorporating 21st century skills.
Joining me will be Sabrina Sanders, director of the Toro Reengagement Program at California State University, Dominguez Hills; Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College (NC), Diane Tavenner, author of “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life,” and Barbara Gooch, a student at University of Maine at Presque Isle. Register here. (Support from the Charles Koch Foundation)
Campuses are following the retail and service sectors in using tech to transform their institutions.
The Promise of Digital Transformation
“Digital transformation” is a buzzword in much of the corporate world as companies try to use digital technologies to create new or modify existing processes both internally and for their customers. The term has its roots with Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, who wrote in the mid-1990s of digital transformation as an “irrevocable and unstoppable” shift from physical atoms to digital bits.
Background: While much of the business world has embraced a digital strategy to varying degrees over the last 25 years, higher education has been much slower to join the game.
“Our campus has spent two decades hiring people to solve problems or deliver new solutions. We threw people at problems, rather than technology,” Frank Yeary, a vice chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, told me in 2012, for a chapter I wrote in the book, Stretching the Higher Education Dollar.
What’s happening: Slowly, higher ed is beginning to follow the retail and service sectors to transform their institutions, as I outline in a series of white papers I’ve written this past year.
In higher ed, digital transformation is often seen as a project just for the IT team.
But what’s really innovative is the way colleges and universities are using data and deploying technology to personalize the experience and improve student success. Think of the underlying technologies in Amazon one-click, Spotify recommendations, or the Apple Watch’s health tracking all being used in higher ed.
The University of Texas at Austin implemented a chatbot to help answer student questions about online classes, reducing wait times from 15 minutes to less than 30 seconds. Afterwards, 84% of students rated it as easy to resolve technical issues with online support.
Valencia College in Florida has moved 92 computer systems to the cloud to provide continuity for the college’s operations, allowing IT to throttle up technology during peak times when faculty and students demand it and then back down when they don’t.
Why it matters: While student-facing ed-tech gets most of the attention, one area of campus with some of the biggest opportunity for digital transformation is university research.
Until now, smaller research universities have often failed to win grants that required the analysis of large data sets or necessitated teams of researchers.
But cloud-computing is fundamentally democratizing research with the availability of low-cost computing time and storage.
Now instead of spending millions of dollars to buy and support supercomputers, institutions can connect their standard machines to a variety of cloud services without ever worrying about the infrastructure.
— “Without the cloud, some research projects would literally take years, if they were even doable at all,” says Michael Snyder, who directs the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford.
During the pandemic, scientists at Stanford gathered health data, such as heart rate, sleep, and temperature for smartwatch users who volunteered for a study. By detecting deviations from a user’s baseline measurements in app researchers developed an algorithm that could detect abnormal Covid or other flu-like illnesses 80% of the time, three days prior to symptoms. All that data collection and analysis happened in the cloud.
Bottom line: College campuses will continue to be people-driven places, but with the increase of digital technologies in the cloud, combined with the Great Resignation, expect to see more retail-influenced services on campuses in the coming years.
Download a brief here on how cloud-computer is modernizing the digital backbone of campuses (with support from AWS; free registration required)
Download the latest brief in the digital transformation series so far, as well as access all the papers in the series.
Watch on-demand recordings of my LinkedIn Live conversations this past week with CIOs from Grand Valley State University and Wellesley College about the role tech can play in improving the outcomes of higher education. We were live from Workday’s Rising conference in Orlando.
YouTube for College. We all turn to YouTube when we don’t know how to do something (“How exactly do I cut that turnip?”).
I’ve met many high-school students who also use YouTube in the college search. Check out this new resource on YouTube called Study Hall from Arizona State University (where I’m a special advisor) and CrashCourse. It has has short videos about preparing for college, guides for different college majors, and even foundational material for some courses you might take in college. These videos are for anyone thinking about college—they aren’t ASU specific. And the library is expected to grow over time. (StudyHall)
The Covid-Generation on Campus.The new season of our Future U. podcast has dropped—it’s our 6th season. We’ll start up with guests next week, but Michael Horn and I spent this first one touching on trends/headlines and previewing season.
Among what we’re watching: this is the year where Covid generation is fully established on campus. This year’s seniors were first years when campuses went remote. Will students really demand the optionality in how courses are delivered that we heard about on our campus tour last spring? On this episode we also tackle the shifting OPM model (Online Program Managers—here’s our Higher Ed 101 on that topic last year) and the realignment of athletic conferences (we’ll dig deeper into latter one on next week’s episode).
Give a listen, subscribe, or new this year, leave a voicemail question for us on our website. (FutureU).
The Power of “Weak Ties.”“A giant new study based on LinkedIn data yields intriguing results. The most valuable parts of our network are likely to involve people well outside our usual circle of close friends. Instead, it’s casual contacts—our “weak ties”—that often turn out to be our saviors,” writes George Anders. (LinkedIn)
Are you in Houston next week for the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference? If so, let’s try to connect there. Come find me at two sessions I’m part of onThursday from 12:45-1:45 PT (The Write Approach to College Admissions: Resilient and Responsible Reporting) and 2:15-3:15 pm (How to Make Sense of a Post-Covid Admission Landscape That Makes No Sense). Both sessions are in 332 ABDE.