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Staff Editorial: Commercial rankings fail to fully capture GW

Media Credit: Cartoon by Jay Fondin
It’s easy for current and prospective students alike to feel buried under the multitude of different college rankings systems available.

Admissions season is upon us yet again, and as thousands of high school seniors try to decide where to attend college, many will turn to lists that rank universities according to which schools are “the best.”

Students who have been on campus a while might consider rankings, especially those by U.S. News & World Report, a bit of a sore subject.

And there’s a new kid on the block when it comes to the animal that is college rankings: the New York Times. It isn’t holding GW in the highest regard either.

But we shouldn’t waste time concerning ourselves with the tired U.S. News rankings or berate GW for its less-than-stellar position on the Times’ new list – and that’s because the biggest player isn’t even in the game yet.

This time next year, students may be turning to a new rating system created by the federal government. We hope that approach will provide prospective students with a more nuanced picture of our school than the Times or even U.S. News.

This month, the newspaper of record released its first-ever list of “the most economically diverse top colleges.” You may not be surprised to hear that, because the list was meant to reveal which schools make the greatest efforts to attract and accommodate lower-income students, GW placed in the bottom fifth of the schools evaluated.

The Times’ methodology has already faced criticism: Only a small portion of colleges – those with four-year graduation rates of 75 percent or higher – were studied, which means GW is competing against other highly selective institutions. And by examining just 99 schools, the survey represents less than 4 percent of all the undergraduates in the country.

That’s why it’s unlikely the Times’ system will vastly change the landscape of college rankings. Even the gold standard, U.S. News, has problems.

Neither list gives an accurate picture of the school many GW students believe they’re attending. Yes, GW has a high sticker price, but many students are able to come here because GW actually meets, on average, 87 percent of demonstrated financial need.

The Times also looked at endowment per student, which again puts GW at a disadvantage. The University’s endowment size, which is relatively small compared to peer schools, is a problem that cannot be fixed anytime soon without a real boost in donations and investment returns. But GW is certainly trying, kicking off its $1 billion fundraising campaign this year.

Meanwhile, U.S. News faults us, albeit slightly, for our many adjunct professors. At most schools, a high number of adjuncts represents an inability to hire and retain full-time professors with the highest degrees in their fields. But GW is proud of the fact that classes are taught by, for example, journalists and diplomats, and those selling points are the reasons many of us chose to come here.

And because GW puts money toward construction projects and student services, U.S. News docks us for not spending as much on academics as other institutions. While GW is proud of all these characteristics, and markets itself accordingly, U.S. News simply does not value them in the same way.

We want a system that won’t sell GW short. As is, there doesn’t seem to be a commercial ranking system that can fully capture the University.

The shortcomings of commercial lists have prompted the White House to work on its own rating system as part of President Barack Obama’s focus on making college more affordable. That system, expected to be in place by the start of the 2015-16 academic year, will evaluate colleges based on factors like access for economically diverse students, affordability and graduation rates.

The Obama administration expects it to act as a foil to lists like U.S. News, which bases more than 12 percent of its ranking for a school on what it calls “student selectivity,” a measure that factors in admissions test scores, the rankings of students at their high schools as well as a university’s acceptance rate.

Although the public knows few details about the federal approach so far, we’re hoping by creating a new rating system from scratch, the White House will be able to avoid some of the problems that U.S. News and the Times have encountered in their mission to evaluate schools – or at the very least, in evaluating GW.

If GW wants applicants to have a resource that provides the most comprehensive information about the University, it should look to this upcoming system as its best bet.

If nothing else, here’s to hoping it wipes away the bad memories of U.S. News.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, culture editor Emily Holland, sports editor Sean Hurd, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design editor Sophie McTear.

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