The self-fulfilling prophecy of college rankings

Jonathan Rienstra


Next week, when UT students are relaxing in the sun or snow, the U.S. News and World Report will release its latest rankings of American graduate schools. For students filling out their law school and business school applications, it can be a tenuous occasion. BusinessWeek already released its business school rankings, and UT’s McCombs School of Business fell seven spots from last year to
No. 17 overall.
And of course, there is the undergraduate rankings that US News releases each August, just in time for high school seniors to consider where to apply. While UT is just inside the top 50 at No. 45 overall, we still lag behind our supposed peer universities.
Large public schools, including UCLA, University of California-Berkeley, the University of Michigan and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill all ranked at least 15 spots ahead of UT, with Berkeley sitting comfortably at No. 22. In fact, four of the 10 campuses in the University of California system beat us. That’s not great if you care about the rankings, and it is hard not to think that at least a few people at the top of the Tower are concerned with the fact that we tied the University of Wisconsin.
I have some serious misgivings about the rankings in general, but my main focus is on SAT scores.
The Standardized Aptitude Test, SAT, weighs as 7.5 percent in U.S. News’ methodology, but it shouldn’t. Perhaps it should not even count at all. Critics have accused the SAT of cultural bias in the past, and one study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Writing Director Les Perelman found a high correlation between the length of essays and high scores in the writing section.
In fact, the University of California system opted in 2005 to drop the SAT as an application requirement. According to Berkeley’s 2009 admissions’ data, the 75th-percentile score for the reading/math portion of the SAT was a 1460. UT’s 75th-percentile score for 2009 was 1350. Now, I’m not doubting that Berkeley is a harder school to get into, (UT has a 45-percent acceptance rate compared to Berkeley’s 21 percent), but by making SAT scores optional, the scores that would bring that average down are less likely to be submitted to the school.
But, as a university, we also score lower than UNC and Michigan, which have 75th-percentile scores of 1390 and 1430, respectively. Which, brings us to the pesky Top 10 Percent rule. The issue has been somewhat remedied by the 75-percent cap passed back in May 2009, but by relying on the top 10 percent, our SAT average has historically been lower.
In addition, an SAT score provides no basis for the legitimacy of a institution of higher learning. Consider a highly rated high school football recruit. He may be considered a top pick-up and will boost a school’s recruiting class, but there is no guarantee that the player will ever produce at the next level. A five-star ranking might be a solid indicator of his potential, but it requires a strong football program and coaches to reach that potential, much in the same way that it requires a school to tap into a highly-rated student’s capabilities.
In a recent UCLA study titled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” 201,818 students at American universities gave their choices for selecting the college that they attend. While only 16.7 percent said that national magazine rankings were the most important reason, 62 percent stated “very good academic reputation” as their first choice. You say “tomato,” I say “tomahto.”
The bill regarding the current Top 10 Percent rule applies through 2015, when current 8th graders will be heading to college. We cannot ignore our current ranking — as much as I wish we could — because future students will use it to guide their decisions.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Schools are ranked highly in part because of their SAT scores, which in turn causes students to want to apply to said highly ranked school. UT is left behind in the rankings because we are hamstringed by state laws, and the University has to decide whether it is worth taking students they “owe” it to or if they want to up their SAT averages and improve the University’s ranking.