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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with ...



Eastman ... Eckerd College president Donald Eastman. Dr. Eastman spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the myriad college rating guides that are coming out these days, and why he thinks some of them aren't necessarily worth much. He also talked about the things he thinks students should really be considering as they look at schools.

I'm really interested in your views about the way that colleges and universities are rated these days. There are a lot of ratings coming out, and you have been favoring some and not favoring others.

Well, I think I would say more that I make distinctions among them. I don't have anything against US News and World Report doing whatever it wants to do. If I were them, I'd probably do the same thing. By all accounts, this is their big issue. They sell a lot of copies and make a lot of money. And they have some things that I think are quite useful. ... There's an article in the US News and World Report college section about so many prospective students applying to schools where they can't get it, because the pressure is up so much for people to go to name-brand schools. And then they wind up going to other schools that they like just as much or more. I thought it was a very thoughtful article.

What my objection to US News and World Report, and most of the presidents in the Annapolis Group, which is the national liberal arts group, is what we do with it, what higher education does with it.

And that is what?

We do a couple of things. One is, we lend them our credibility by responding to this reputational survey in which they send the presidents and the provosts a list of all the colleges in the country that are something like you, and say, Now you tell us which are the best ones. ... The results of that compilation is 25 percent of the scores a school gets to get ranked. And the fact is most college presidents and provosts know very little about more than a couple, maybe a half dozen, colleges out of their own, if that many.

So what should they be doing instead?

Well, they shouldn't be responding to that. That's just nonsense. That's just absolute nonsense for presidents and provosts to participate in that. What they know is the reputation of other schools. So you're reporting about what you know about the reputation, and that constitutes the reputational index. That's not bringing anything to the party that is useful.

The second thing that US News and World Report does is, it ranks the schools one through whatever they go through as if they were not apples and oranges and pears and tomatoes, and as if there were really some precision involved. I think a lot of the data they show up with is nice to have in one spot. But the idea that you're going to rank these schools and make any real sense of it is pretty much nonsense.

Most of their rankings are the equivalent of who's got the biggest endowments. And most of the student quality on SATs is almost exactly equivalent to family income. That doesn't really tell you much of anything. It's just sort of a list of who's the richest.

So what should students be doing with these lists when they see them?

Recognize that - and parents too ... that it's pretty much nonsense. You've got to look into the various data that you get about schools. There's no question about that. But if you take the Top 10 in US News and World report, they've got four or five comprehensive institutions and they've got Cal Tech. Now, Cal Tech is a great school. But it's not like it's the equivalent of Harvard, that it's ranked after, or Cornell, that it's ranked ahead of. Its scope, its focus and its mission are night and day different from the other institutions in that top 10 or 20. And that's not the only one.

One more thing about the US News and World Report thing. That is, they send a very complicated, very time-consuming questionnaire to the head of institutional research at all these schools and require you to fill it out and send it back. Nobody else requires you to do all that work. Most all of that information is available on the IPEDS web site in the US Department of Education. That's where everyone else gets it.

So there are two parts to not participating in the US News and World Report, maybe three. One is, why should we spend all the time doing their work for them? ... No. 2, to sort of shame the presidents and provosts into not acting like they really know about the quality of all these other institutions when in fact they don't. And third, don't brag about it on your web site because you got ranked the best master's level college in the southeast when there are only about eight of them anyway.

Now, with respect to the Princeton Review, which is another one. That's a different kettle of fish. They don't send us this elaborate questionnaire, they don't rely on reputational rumor and gossip among others. Particularly, they interview students who go to the institution. They do a write-up and they don't make this huge list. They've got 366 schools, they give you a thumbnail on each one of them. Some are, I'm sure, more accurate than others. And sometimes schools like their profiles better than others. I kind of thought the one we got last year was better than the one we got this year. But that's just because of what I want to hear.

Some of the things they say are kind of, what did one person say? Frivolous? Didn't they rate you as No. 18 under "reefer madness"? What does that mean to you? Is it just silly?

Yeah. It's silly. Of course it's silly. And they have a lighter tone than US News and World Report, which acts like if you're really smart and you can figure this stuff out, you can get it to the tenth decimal point, which is just nonsense.

So you like the Princeton Review instead of ...

Do I want to choose between silliness and nonsense? I think a lot of these things are just that. The fact is, there are 2,600 four-year plus colleges and universities in the United States, and another 1,500-1,600 community colleges. There are a ton of good ones. And what students really ought to be focused on - and frankly I think most of them are - is finding the right fit between the particular student and the school itself.

What would you say are the best ways to go about doing that?

It certainly does help to have a first-rate guidance counselor who knows you and who knows the kinds of schools that people like you from your particular area have found useful. ...

Sitting down with somebody - it doesn't have to be a school guidance counselor or a paid person - who just knows something about colleges, who will usually push the high school student and parents to say:

  • What is it you really want?
  • What part of the country do you want to go to school in?
  • What do you want to study?
  • How good a student are you really?
  • How hard do you want to work?

And so on. And you can narrow it down to a decent number reasonably quickly, particularly if you've got somebody who knows something about colleges and universities.

And then you need to go visit the places and try them on. And imagine, Can I see myself here? Are the students that I'm talking to and the faculty that I've had communication with, do they seem like the kind of folks I want to spend four years with?

So the school's name and so-called ranking are things that matter much less than fit for you?

They really don't have that much to do with your happiness when you're there, or your success after you leave. You will have a whole lot harder time getting into medical school with a C average from Harvard than you will with an A average from the University of South Florida. It's just a different kind of deal.

I have taught or worked at University of Tennessee, Cornell University, University of Georgia and got my Ph.D. at the University of Florida and now I'm here. ... Some students really prosper at a great big public research university. An awful lot of them prosper at a small place like this because of the attention that they get from faculty. At every big research place I've been, including the best in the country, students will complain about graduate students teaching you. ... Man, that's the way those places work. If you're at a research university, they're supposed to turn out research. The faculty is not focused on undergraduate teaching. If you go to a small liberal arts college, that's what they do for a living. ... Some people like one thing, and some people like another.

And other people - and this makes up a pretty sizable segment of the population, both students and parents - like beer and circus. Those people think that the hoopla around big collegiate athletic programs, football games and things like that, is what college is all about. If that's what it's about for them, you wouldn't want to be stuck in a place that doesn't have a football team.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:21am]


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