For me, the greatest benefit of attending academic conferences is the ability to clarify my own thinking about important issues in educational policy. At my most recent conference last week, I attended several outstanding sessions on issues in higher education in addition to presenting my own work on early commitment programs for financial aid. (I’ll have more on that in a post in the near future, so stay tuned.) I greatly enjoyed the talks and learned quite a bit from them, but the biggest thing I am taking away from them is something that I think they’re doing wrong—conflating college selectivity with college quality.
When most researchers refer to the concept of “college quality,” they are really referring to a college’s inputs, such as financial resources, student ACT/SAT scores, and high school class rank. What this really means is that a college is selective and has what we consider to be quality inputs. But plentiful, malleable inputs do not imply a quality outcome, given what we would expect from the student and the college. Rather, a quality college helps its student body succeed instead of just recruiting a select group of students. This does not mean that selective colleges cannot be quality colleges; however, it does mean that the relationship is not guaranteed.
I am particularly interested in measuring college quality based on an estimate of its value added to students instead of a measure highly correlated with inputs. Part of my research agenda is on that topic, as illustrated by my work compiling the Washington Monthly college rankings. However, other popular college rankings continue to reward colleges for their selectivity, which creates substantial incentives to game the rankings system in unproductive ways.
For example, a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education illustrates how one college submitted inaccurate and overly optimistic data for the U.S. News rankings. George Washington University, one of the few colleges in the country with a posted cost of attendance of over $50,000 per year, had previously reported that 78% of their incoming freshman class was in the top ten percent of their high school graduating class, in spite of large numbers of high schools declining to rank students in recent years. An eagle-eyed staffer in the provost’s office realized that the number was too high and discovered that the admissions staff was inaccurately estimating the rank for students with no data. As a result, the revised figure was only 58%.
Regardless of whether GWU’s error was of one of omission or malfeasance, the result was that the university appeared to be a higher-quality school under the fatally flawed U.S. News rankings. [UPDATE 11/15/12: U.S. News has removed the ranking for GWU in this year’s online guide.] GWU certainly aspires to be more selective, but keep in mind that selectivity does not imply quality in a value-added sense. Academics and policymakers would be wise to be careful when discussing quality when they really mean selectivity.