Colleges Make Web Based Response To College Rankings

Americans love rankings; educated consumers want to​ know what's the​ best on the​ market for​ autos, electronics, airline services, and​ hotels among other things. Educated businesspeople take high rankings seriously, loudly shouting independent praises through their advertising.

But college administrators dislike rankings. I understand some of​ the​ reasons why; it's almost impossible to​ compare dissimilar schools and​ the​ formulas and​ methodologies are considered non-scholarly by academics. College presidents have said that peer assessment means little when their peers base their judgments on the​ past perceptions of​ their schools.

This year, according to​ U.S. News and​ World Report, a​ record low 51 percent of​ college presidents completed their reputational survey in​ which they rank their peer institutions. Eight years ago, more than two-thirds completed it. This peer assessment represents 25 percent of​ a​ school's overall ranking. I could guess that the​ rankings would be less valid as​ more schools refuse to​ share information, as​ well as​ reliable statistics with the​ magazine.

However, you can't keep a​ good journalistic team down. U.S. News and​ World Report has been collecting and​ compiling this information for​ 24 years. Data collection and​ compilation for​ these rankings have been refined nine times, partly in​ response to​ institutional concerns. They have plenty of​ incentive; the​ America's Best Colleges issue and​ print guide are hot selling magazines. They would not be hot-sellers if​ they didn't try to​ be ahead of​ the​ curve and​ become more statistically valid.

Like it​ or​ not, these rankings are not going away. Not as​ long as​ colleges advertise high rankings as​ if​ they're a​ "good housekeeping seal" of​ approval. All educational institutions K-12, colleges and​ universities are operating in​ an​ era where parents and​ policy makers desire greater accountability and​ more statistical measures. Even if​ U.S. News quit publishing America's Best Colleges, another source would step up in​ its place. College and​ university presidents should consider themselves fortunate if​ Congress does not support that source.

One association, the​ National Association of​ Independent Colleges and​ Universities (NAICU) launched their own Web-based tool called U-CAN, which stands for​ University and​ College Accountability Network. U-CAN is​ a​ nationwide effort to​ provide consumer information to​ parents and​ students, including financial statistics, about privately supported institutions.

NAICU claims that U-CAN is​ not a​ reaction to​ published rankings; according to​ public content on their site, U-CAN was created in​ response to​ public demand for​ comparable, concise, relevant, and​ easily accessible information. But I scrolled down and​ noticed that NAICU acknowledges that if​ "consumers, Congress, and​ the​ administration decide that the​ information on U-CAN is​ self-serving and​ of​ little value, the​ likely alternative is​ new federal reporting mandates."

So, NAICU is​ behaving much like a​ business association of​ firms in​ the​ same industry; let's try to​ regulate ourselves before the​ government steps in. U-CAN is​ NAICU's attempt at​ self-regulation. as​ someone who has been in​ the​ education site business, I was curious to​ see how U-CAN worked. I played with U-CAN, much like a​ parent or​ student would.

Here's what I liked about U-CAN:

+ It's free and​ there's no need to​ register. if​ I were a​ student, I do not become part of​ a​ junk-mail database to​ schools that are of​ no interest to​ me.

+ Navigation is​ clear and​ simple—if your heart is​ already set on a​ very small number of​ private schools.

+ U-CAN has statistics that I cannot find in​ other published sources, specifically the​ tuition history, four-year and​ five-year graduation rates, diversity indices, student indebtedness, a​ price breakdown for​ tuition and​ fees, average net tuition charge (after grants in​ aid), residence life and​ direct access to​ campus safety information.

Some of​ this information is​ available on other sites, but not as​ easily searchable; in​ the​ case of​ U.S. News, you have to​ pay a​ fee for​ premium access to​ obtain more detail beyond the​ top schools on their lists.

U-CAN is​ comprehensive, and​ makes it​ an​ admirable effort; it​ is​ considerable work to​ secure cooperation from so many schools (approximately 450, as​ I write this piece), let alone organize the​ data in​ a​ user-friendly format.

U-CAN is​ useful, but less than perfect, for​ considering private colleges.

The first problem is​ unmemorable domain names. the​ host association uses a​ dot-edu in​ its web address instead of​ a​ dot-com, dot-net or​ dot-org; that's an​ unusual practice because the​ sponsor is​ a​ not-for-profit association, not an​ academic institution. the​ domain for​ the​ U-CAN site is​ This surprised me when I typed ucan dot-org and​ got nowhere. They cannot use ucan dot-org; that domain belongs to​ the​ Utility Consumer’s Action Network.

So, my first suggestion to​ NAICU is​ to​ buy U-CAN dot-org, dot-com and​ dot-net before someone else does—or find a​ new name.

Two other problems come from searches. You cannot return to​ a​ list of​ search results if​ you want to​ look at​ more than one school in​ a​ state. for​ instance, I selected New Jersey and​ got a​ list of​ independent schools in​ the​ Garden State. After I finished viewing the​ complete profile of​ one school, I could not return to​ my list. I had to​ do the​ same search again. in​ addition, I could not do a​ search across schools in​ more than one state.

The search problems can make U-CAN quite cumbersome and, by comparison, they make the​ U.S. News print and​ online guides seem more user-friendly, if​ I want to​ compare schools.

That leads me to​ another suggestion: develop a​ print version of​ U-CAN that groups the​ schools by state and​ type of​ school using the​ available statistics. a​ print version of​ U-CAN confronts a​ major advantage of​ other guides—they're also books—parents and​ guidance counselors are more techno-phobic than high school students. the​ most difficult statistic to​ format in​ tables is​ probably tuition history. U-CAN lists tuition charges for​ each of​ the​ past five years; that can be converted into an​ average tuition increase.

U-CAN is​ an​ excellent site, if​ you have already whittled down your choices to​ a​ small number of​ private schools. It's better designed to​ be your last stop for​ information gathering—after you've bought the​ U.S. News guide, read student school reviews and​ done your campus visits—instead of​ your first.

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