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Deans learn to live with U.S. News ratings

STANFORD -- Graduate schools received their annual report card this week from U.S. News & World Report - in rankings that increasingly hold few surprises for institutions such as Stanford. But university deans continue to quarrel with the ranking methodology and worry about the rankings' effects.

Stanford graduate programs ranked quite highly in the latest issue of the magazine, with most holding steady or edging upward. The few exceptions involved drops from first to third for the Graduate School of Business, from ninth to twelfth for the School of Medicine and from second to fourth for the School of Engineering.

When the magazine rolled out its first evaluation of U.S. colleges in 1983, rankings of undergraduate education outraged a number of university administrators and were dismissed by many others, including former president Donald Kennedy, as a meaningless “beauty contest.”

Since then, however, the magazine has refined and expanded its rating system every year, so that now, deans at Stanford seem resigned to the growing influence of the annual rankings. Administrators say the magazine has generally been receptive to making improvements in the way it evaluates schools. Most wish the magazine would forego the overall numerical ranking for each school, and simply provide data on a number of factors that may be of differing importance to students, however.

The rankings for graduate schools most likely influence some applicants, administrators here say, but they are uncertain about how much. They tend to believe U.S. News & World Report's rankings of undergraduate education, published in the fall, have a far greater impact on applications.

“There is by far greater influence on undergraduates because they and their parents, in many cases, will not have expert advice about the best schools. Applicants for graduate school are normally getting advice from faculty at their undergraduate institutions,” said George Dekker, associate dean of research for graduate policy.

The U.S. News & World Report surveys are increasingly elaborate, even taking into account graduates' starting salaries in the case of law and business. Still, researchers miss important distinctions, several deans said.

“They used to lump together the salaries for graduates going into public interest law and private practice,” said Paul Brest, dean of the Stanford Law School. “They stopped doing that, which is great, but still, there is a tremendous regional difference in salaries” that is not accounted for in the ratings, he said. This year, Stanford Law School was ranked as tied for second with Harvard, up from third last year.

Brest and Dr. Charlotte Jacobs, dean of students at Stanford Medical School, objected to the weight the magazine places on how deans or other faculty members rank schools. In some cases, survey participation rates are less than half, Jacobs said, and participants lack meaningful knowledge about the institutions being ranked. “Can I really compare the University of Pittsburgh to Vanderbilt? No dean really knows everything about these schools,” she said.

Jacobs also thinks the Stanford Medical Schools' overall rating - 12th among “research-oriented” medical schools - is unfairly brought down by the way the magazine assesses faculty quality and student selectivity.

Stanford Medical School has the highest rate of sponsored research per faculty investigator, but U.S. News & World Report looks at research volume for the institution as a whole. U.S. News & World Report Senior Editor Robert Morse, director of statistical analysis for the rating system, agreed this was a problem the magazine hopes to address next year.

How the magazine assesses the quality of students is another source of contention. Grade point average, admission test scores and the proportion of applicants accepted are all criteria used by the magazine, with variations from the one type of school to another.

At the Stanford medical school, where 86 students were accepted this year out of 7,000 applicants, the MCAT test scores used by the magazine as 65 percent of the student selectivity rating, is only used as an initial screen by the school, Jacobs said. “Then we look at people with unique qualities - such as older students who have done interesting things” like “work already in international health or in culturally diverse environments.”

Similarly, in education schools, selectivity was determined almost solely on the basis of Graduate Record Examination scores. “Our students score very high on the GRE, but we are also looking at the diversity of students, and I think diversity is an issue especially in education,” said Richard Shavelson, dean of Stanford's School of Education.

This year the rankings are especially important to education schools, because they were ranked for the first time. Stanford's school came in second, behind Harvard. “Based on the scoring system used, it looks like any of the first four schools are indistinguishable at the top,” Shavelson said.

“It's gratifying that U.S. News & World Report has included education schools in its graduate school survey,” he said, but he added that “the indicators included in the survey (student selectivity, faculty resources, research activity and reputation rated separately by academics and superintendents), while important, do not tell all there is about quality of a school. Since education schools across the country differ greatly in terms of programs, size and focus, comparative rankings can be difficult. A number of schools included in the survey were ranked lower than I expected.”

The Engineering school, which ranked second last year and now ranks fourth, is hardly worried about the shift, said James Plummer, senior associate dean. “There are only tenths of points separating the top schools,” he said. “These minor changes in position are not of a major consequence to us. We certainly look at it as one data point, but the most important thing is what we see the future holding.” New junior faculty hired over the past five years and capital projects under way, he said, are more important indicators that the school is changing for the better.

“The fact that the rankings move so much tells you more about how much the rankings change than the schools,” said Garth Saloner, associate dean of Stanford's Graduate School of Business. This year, he said, U.S. News & World Report decided to put more weight on how corporate recruiters rank business schools. Stanford's own surveys of recruiters, Saloner said, found that they tend not to like small schools like Stanford's because they can't hire as many people on one trip.

“We think our students are pretty sophisticated and don't just go by the rankings,” he said, “but I think they've had more effect on business schools ranked in the range of three through ten than us.” A sudden upswing for Northwestern a few years back led to a flood of applications he said, but the Stanford school has not noticed a relationship between its annual ranking and applications.

“Our applications and our yield rate, which is the fraction we accept who choose to come here, are at an all time high,” he said.


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