Inside Higher Ed - Going Off on Online Rankings

Inside Higher Ed - How Will Students Communicate?

By Paul Fain

Complaining about the U.S. News & World Report college rankings while simultaneously coveting a higher slot is a time-honored tradition in higher education. And now for-profit colleges are getting into the game.

For-profits were included in the U.S. News “Best Colleges” list this year, although most did not meet the criteria to be ranked. Some for-profits, however, will be ranked in the first ever U.S. News comparison of online institutions. The ranking remains a work in progress, and the publication has yet to nail down a release date. But three prominent for-profits are already complaining about the questionnaire.

Capella University has opted out of participating in the online education survey. Deb Bushway, Capella’s interim president, wrote an article for the Huffington Post in which she said the questions from U.S. News focus too much on how prepared students are when they enroll, instead of what they learn before graduating.

“Unfortunately, the final questionnaire from U.S. News appears highly focused on inputs rather than outcomes. While the survey does include a few general questions related to outcomes, they provide no clarity on how the answers provided by participating institutions will be weighted,” Bushway wrote. “For the average 39-year old Capella learner in the middle of her career, where she finished in her high school class, her high school GPA, SAT and ACT scores and her geographical location are not particularly relevant measures of quality or excellence.”

The American Public University System submitted most of the information U.S. News requested as part of the survey, but university officials say the questions do not adequately capture student learning and career outcomes.

“The U.S. News criteria are rigid and specifically do not recognize the degree completion characteristics of working adult students who represent over 90 percent of our students,” said Jennifer Stephens Helm, the system’s vice president of institutional research and assessment, in a written statement.

The publication is analyzing six types of online academic programs for the new rankings: baccalaureate degree programs and master’s degrees in business, computer information technology, education, engineering and nursing. Both for-profits and nonprofits with substantial online offerings, like UMassOnline and the University of Maryland University College, were asked to participate. (To be eligible, programs need to have coursework that is collectively at least 80 percent online, according to a web presentation by U.S. News officials.)

Finding good comparisons of online degree programs isn’t easy. And when prospective students look online for more information about programs, they are likely to be referred to lead-generation websites, which sell their information to recruiters.

The new rankings from U.S. News will follow the release earlier this month of the latest installment of the annual Best Colleges list. Robert J. Morse, who oversees the rankings for U.S. News, explained the inclusion of for-profits in the list here, noting that the sample was shifted in response to 2010 revisions to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's institutional classifications. About 60 for-profits were included in the list this year.

U.S. News hopes to release the online survey results before the end of the year, Morse said, after having previously predicted an October release. He anticipates receiving more responses, but said participation rates so far have been similar among for-profits and traditional colleges.

Morse said several major for-profits are participating, including DeVry, the University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University and Walden University. Capella is the only for-profit to announce that it will not participate — officials emailed their concerns to U.S. News in addition to publishing them in the Huffington Post. Walden, however, only partially responded to the survey, which it called flawed. And the public criticism by Capella and APUS, both of which would likely fare well among for-profits in the online rankings, stings a bit.

The two for-profits seem to want it both ways, seeking to be classified alongside their nonprofit peers and then complaining about the survey. Then again, many traditional colleges want to have their cake and eat it, too.

“On one hand they’re telling the world that they’re serious institutions and want to be viewed the same as the bricks and mortar,” Morse said, but “they also want to define the terms by which they’re measured.”

Information Superhighway

U.S. News developed its online questionnaire after consulting with officials from several colleges, including Capella and other for-profits. The publication promises that the survey will become more sophisticated in coming years. And the system for this year’s ranking is not finalized.

“We haven’t established the methodology yet,” Morse said.

That makes sorting out complaints about the rankings, already no simple task, even more complex.

Both sides are respectfully delicate in their arguments. Capella praised the goals of the online ranking, while Morse and Eric Brooks, a data research analyst with U.S. News, said they would consider questions and criticism from survey recipients in future versions. The publication will note which colleges did not participate this year, Morse said.

“U.S. News & World Report is focused on the right thing,” said Bushway. “There is great importance in transparency, disclosure and accountability.”

Bushway’s primary beef appears to be with the use of standardized test scores like the SAT. But Brooks said a significant portion of the student market takes those tests, particularly students who progress to the five graduate degree programs U.S. News is ranking.

APUS’s concerns revolve around how to account for time to graduation.

“They do not include students who take longer than eight years to complete a bachelor's degree, and the average for our part-time students is approximately seven years,” Helm said. “It also does not account for the swirling trend in adult, online students, meaning that even students who complete a single course must be included versus students who complete the equivalent of a single semester.”

APUS had not yet sent their problems with the survey to U.S. News. But Morse responded to Helm’s written statement, calling her complaint about the eight-year cutoff “very carefully worded” and nuanced.

“We are asking whether schools participate in outcome measures as part of the online bachelor's degree survey,” Morse said in an e-mail. And while he said it’s true that the survey does not take “swirling” into account, this time, the statement from Helm “does not explain its implication in an understandable way.”

Jonathan A. Kaplan, Walden's president, said the university answered survey questions about its graduate programs in education, nursing and business. Walden did not provide data about its bachelor's track. While Kaplan is pleased that U.S. News is trying to gauge the quality of online offerings, he said several key areas are not defined clearly, including graduation rate measurement, student retention, cohort default rates and student outcomes, particularly for non-traditional adult learners.

"We have shared those concerns with U.S. News, and we understand why some institutions have decided to sit on the sidelines," Kaplan said in a written statement. "Going forward, we will look at the U.S. News methodology carefully to determine whether it is or isn’t an accurate assessment of program quality."

Including for-profits in the online ranking was a no-brainer, Morse said. They are major players, and he doubts many students choose online degree programs based on whether they’re for-profit.

“You can’t do online without including the for-profits,” said Morse.

Date: 09/29/11