Tufts administration grapples with meaning, value of high rankings

When navigating the high-stakes decision of where one should attend college, lists and rankings can seem to be everywhere. Depending on which list one is looking at, Tufts might be presented as the 27th best university in the nation overall, a school in the top percent for LGBTQ friendliness and health, 34th for innovation, third for its biology, 43rd for its campus aesthetic (but only in the fall) and 20th for its food. These numbers all claim to represent an aspect of the university, but to reflect a real college experience at Tufts, a mere number is not enough, experts say.

“[Rankings] have…power, [but] I do think they should be more questioned than worshipped,” Senior Lecturer of Education Steve Cohen said.

Cohen is skeptical of the kinds of rankings doled out in the lists above. He argues that they fail to tell the whole story of a college experience.

“I don’t really think that you can compare colleges that way,” he said. “I understand if you can put together a lot of metrics and a lot of numbers, but the question of what those numbers really tell you about someone’s college education or experience of college, I’m not convinced.”

Cohen believes that college rankings oversimplify the depth and complexity of higher education and the college experience, as the numbers often arise from an attempt to measure qualitative experience quantitatively.

“It’s sort of a science that isn’t a science…and [an] attempt to compare things that are not that comparable,” Cohen said.

Cohen points out that the average salary of graduates is a significant but troubling component of the ranking system.

“Mostly richer kids go to these higher ranking schools,” Cohen said. “They’re mostly going to come out making more money. This doesn’t seem to me surprising, so that’s another criteria that’s part of the feedback loop, and just keeps everything the way it was.”

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin compared this metric to the injustice of class rank in high school.

“Class rank [is] just like college rankings,” Coffin said. “The difference between #3 and #33 could be one B+ on the transcript. That shift dropped you six points. It’s a false way of ordering a group of students, and I think the same is true if you look at the rankings.”

Noting the considerable variation across each list’s criteria and methodologies, Coffin also points out that they cannot possibly include every single statistic on the university.

“[US News & World Report] doesn’t collect any data about diversity, socioeconomic or racial, financial aid, low-income access, what number of students on campus are the first in their family to go to college, undergraduate satisfaction,” he said. “All of these numbers exist out there that US News [doesn’t] count, so to me their headline ‘Best Colleges’ is leaving out a lot of topics that could change that ranking quite a bit.”

Cohen agreed, noting that the ranking system organizes information ineffectively.

“The American education system is so fragmented and diverse in so many different ways,” he said. “There’s a lot of information out there, and rankings try to sort of put them in one place and give this order, but you know, again, I think it’s not particularly meaningful.”

Coffin adds that rankings really can offer insight into the vast world of colleges, but more research by the applicants is required as well.

“There’s data buried in the rankings that often tells a really positive story, [but] I don’t know how many consumers understand how to go behind the numbers,” Coffin said.

Coffin sees a better alternative to sequential ranking systems in Tufts’ latest LGBTQ-friendly ranking. Campus Pride’s LGBTQ-friendly ranking gives a list of 25 schools in no particular order; it merely offers the best 25 schools in that particular category.

“That kind of ranking is a bit more open-ended because it’s not saying 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. It’s saying that this group of schools shine in this way,” Coffin said. “Where they’re dangerous is when someone says this ranking in and of itself tells me the story.”

College rankings mean different things to different universities, Cohen said. Schools such as Reed College have chosen to abstain from the U.S. News and World Report ranking systems, while Northeastern admitted to focusing heavily on U.S. News and World Report metrics and formulas to garner the students and grant money it wanted and boost its reputation, according to a Boston Magazine story from September 2014.

“Institutions play with these rankings because they see it as a way to advertise, get their names out there,” Cohen said.

According to Cohen, universities are often called the big businesses of education. As a result, rankings serve as advertising and marketing for these corporations.

“[Organizations like US News] put out rankings for grad schools, business schools, med schools and law schools; we see it in K-12 education,” Cohen said. “If they can sell it, they’re gonna rank it.”

According to Deputy Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins, Tufts Public Relations does not advertise different rankings.

“While there are occasional exceptions, the university’s public relations office typically does not publicize rankings due to their volume, wide variations in approach and the fact that news media are unlikely to cover such announcements,” Collins told in the Daily in an email.

Tufts Admissions does not use rankings to attract prospective students either, Coffin said.

“We don’t formally use them,” Coffin said. “We participate…if they request data. It’s not part of our narrative. Usually I don’t even know they’re happening.”

However, Coffin noted the impact that some rankings have had on the popularity of Tufts and its programs.

“When I first got to Tufts, Newsweek was still a magazine, and they did a big story about the best programs around the country,” Coffin said. “And for International Relations (IR) it said we were one of the best. Boom. IR just kind of took off. It had always been strong, but Newsweek putting a spotlight on IR made IR just explode in popularity.”

According to Coffin, while rankings are often in the back of prospective students’ minds, international students will be more likely to pay attention to rankings than American citizens as they make their decisions.

“[If] you live in China, Turkey, Africa [and] you’re looking at US colleges, it’s a way of understanding the options,” he said. “So there’s value there, but it’s also a challenge. Usually, [my colleagues who recruit abroad will] come back from their trip overseas and they’ll say we got a lot questions like, ‘Why are you ranked this not this, or why is this not that?’ Within the US, as I’ve traveled around the country over the years, it doesn’t come up a lot.”

However, Coffin said that with today’s marketing, no one can completely ignore the temptation to see what number a school is. Rankings do help prospective students organize all the information that’s thrown at them in the beginning of the application process.

“Guidebooks’ rankings are part of the broad infrastructure that surrounds college admissions in its current state.” Coffin said. “[Students and families] will often deny it, but then who’s buying those magazines?”

Ultimately, Collins recognizes Tufts’ lauded place in the ranking world and appreciates the subsequent benefits, but asks applicants to view them carefully.

Although it is gratifying that Tufts continues to be recognized as a leading university on various measures by a number of organizations, the university always urges applicants, their families and others to consider rankings cautiously and to view them as only one indicator of a school’s quality,” Collins said.