Do College Rankings Help or Hurt Prospective Students?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, October 10, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

DAVID ASMAN, GUEST HOST: Every so often, you'll see a story about college rankings (search). You know a list of the best and the worst schools in the country, but while some parents swear by these lists, college administrators are more likely to swear at them.

Paul Marthers is Dean of admissions at Reed College (search) in Oregon. Earlier John Gibson asked, do college rankings help or hurt prospective students? And that is today's big question.


PAUL MARTHERS, DEAN OF ADMISSIONS, REED COLLEGE, OREGON: Well, at Reed College, we believe that college rankings are misleading to students and their parents, and for that reason, we do not participate in college rankings.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Well, they rank you anyway, don't they?

MARTHERS: They do, but we're not willing participants. And we believe that college rankings are — they're sort of founded on a one-size-fits-all mentality and each student is a particular, unique individual with special talents and needs and even the highest ranked college won't fit all students.

GIBSON: Well, I mean, this is sort of a growth industry. There's all kinds of publications that rank colleges, and parents are out there gobbling these things up as fast as they can to try to determine where they would like their precious little student to go. What is the problem with them?

MARTHERS: What is the problem with the rankings or with the parents and the students?

GIBSON: Well, no, the rankings. I mean, I would think that if you had a football team you'd want to be ranked. Why don't you want to be ranked as an academic institution?

MARTHERS: Well, again, it goes back to what are you measuring and how are you measuring it? Again, I think most people associated with colleges and universities feel that they oversimplify the rankings. Oversimplify subtle and complex differences between institutions. Every college, every university has its own distinctive personality and flavor and how does a ranking convey that?

For example, at Reed, we consider ourselves to be a small, very intellectual type of college where learning for its own sake is prized. And how does a ranking measure the extent to which knowledge is cultivated or valued on any particular campus?

GIBSON: Well, it sounds like you're worried that Reed College wouldn't rank so well against some big school with a flashy football team.

MARTHERS: Well, we don't have a football team so that's not a worry that we have. One thing I would say is when you are a small liberal arts college, you may not be in the forefront of the minds of people in society because you don't have a football team. Certainly, athletic rankings put the names Michigan, U.S.C., UCLA in the minds of individuals.

GIBSON: Well, Mr. Marthers, I guess I'm trying to cut to the chase here, because there is an industry for these rankings. A lot of publications feel that they shouldn't make rankings because people are out there buying them because they want to figure out where their young students should go. And since it exists, why don't the colleges cooperate a little more, why doesn't Reed cooperate a little more and come up with some kind of system where a ranking made sense?

MARTHERS: Well, again, I think it goes back to the belief colleges have and college counselors have that the choice of a college is a very individualized choice. So, one college might work for one student and not work for another student. But if a college is ranked — and I used to be a college guidance counselor for a few years — and students would come into my office and say, "I'm very interested in college X because it's ranked so much higher than it was last year." And I guess in my mind I would question, "Well, what's changed at that college or university?"

And often the person I knew at that college or university would say that nothing had really changed. Again, it goes back to what I said earlier. It's very misleading. It is one-size-fits-all. It oversimplifies. And I think there are thousands of very good colleges in America. And if parents and students will spend some time reading about them, they will find that those colleges that are ranked high might work for them, they might not.

GIBSON: Paul Marthers at Reed College there in Oregon, with Mount Hood in the background. Mr. Marthers, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

MARTHERS: You're welcome.


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