Univ. donates to alternative ranking system

Although Yale has consistently ranked as one of the top three “Best Colleges” in US News & World Report’s national rankings, the University is joining the search for an alternative assessment that it hopes will level the playing field for schools of differing reputations.

Over the past few months, Yale has donated $30,000 to the Education Conservancy to assist in the creation of a new college-search Web site that aims to provide an alternative to the US News & World Report Best College rankings. Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said he hopes the new tool will provide students with more diverse data on various schools during the admissions process.

The Education Conservancy is an Oregon-based agency that works toward removing commercial influence from the college-admissions process. Its site will include descriptions of student extracurricular and social life, as well as academic statistics such as student-faculty ratio and rate of graduation.

Yale is one of 12 academic institutions that donated a combined $120,000 to the Conservancy for the new college-information system. According to the Education Conservancy Web site, the organization will need $400,000 in funding to create the prototype of the new Web site, which it hopes to do by January 2009.

Princeton University also donated $30,000.

Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The goals for the Education Conservancy’s new college-search Web site ­— which will feature diverse sets of data portraying a holistic assessment of the college — contrast sharply with the ranking systems favored now, which Brenzel said focus on limited quantifiable data.

Brenzel said he thinks the Education Conservancy’s new initiative will help to combat the “rankings-driven admissions frenzy.”

“The Education Conservancy hopes to provide students with robust data sets and the tools to determine for themselves what matters to them most about colleges and then determine how colleges compare,” Brenzel said in an e-mail.

Brenzel said most of the money contributed by Yale was designated specifically for the Conservancy-sponsored Beyond Rankings conference, a college admissions forum held at Yale in September. About 100 educators, researchers, high-school and admissions counselors, parents and students came to campus for the conference.

“All commercially sponsored ranking systems are driven by rigid formulas, where a limited number of factors were weighted according to the whims of the ranksters,” Brenzel said.

The US News college rankings take quantifiable factors such as retention rate and yield and assign a score out of 100 points to each school.

In March, the presidents of 12 small private colleges co-wrote a letter expressing their dissatisfaction with the U.S. News rankings methodology. As of today, 65 college presidents have signed the letter, promising not to complete the magazine’s peer-review survey, which asks for their views on other colleges.

Many schools are now declining to send US News the statistical data that compose their score. The majority of the schools also will not include their scores in promotional materials.

Robert Morse, director of data research at US News & World Report, said he thinks the goals of the Education Conservancy’s new initiative are admirable, although they may prove difficult to attain.

“It’s going to be pretty challenging,” Morse said. “But hopefully [the Web site] will turn into a meaningful and useful tool, and students will be attracted to it.”

Many schools choose not to complete education surveys or publish scores from assessments other than the US News survey, Morse said. This focus on one rankings system makes it difficult to create alternate systems, he said.

One of these surveys, the National Survey of Student Engagement, asks students about their participation in extracurricular programs and activities. Relatively few colleges ask their students to participate in this survey, Morse said, and none of the universities in the Ivy League currently participate.

“Schools haven’t stepped up to the plate,” he said.

Morse said the success of the Education Conservancy’s new college-search Web site is dependent on three factors — obtaining more representative information from the colleges, differentiating the Web site from existing college-search Web sites and effectively promoting the Web site to high-school students.

Ilene Abrams, a college advisor at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif. said she looks forward to the Education Conservancy’s new college-search system and hopes it will evaluate “both the academic and social situation” of universities around the country. She said the US News rankings are not helpful to students because the factors they evaluate are limited to merely statistics rather than information on quality of life.

“Students don’t know that the factors [from the US News & World Report rankings] have nothing in common with what makes it the right college for them,” Abrams said.

She said surveys should instead take into consideration factors such as extracurricular activities, ease of contact with professors and schools’ attitudes towards learning.

Frank Cirillo ’11 said he agrees that students need more than numbers in order to find colleges that are best suited to their individual needs.

“Getting a qualitative feeling from colleges, rather than quantitative rankings, are more important when choosing colleges,” he said.

The Education Conservancy’s Web site tentatively plans to include an interactive guidance tool, an expanded database of information about each college and a system to match students with suitable colleges.

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