Sweet Sixteen???

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The week of Labor Day is considered the unofficial end of the summer and so it is the perfect time for the return of the Hopkins Insider blog. It is getting hectic in the Hopkins Admissions office as the counseling team prepares Movein1 to hit the road in the next week, while simultaneously Movein2 organizing for our fall visit events. At the same time, the operations team is setting up our system for processing the 2006-2007 applications which have already begun to arrive. This past Movein3weekend we welcomed 1201 new members of the Hopkins community that will make up the Class of 2010. As theyMovein4 moved in, they were greeted by a cadre of Orientation Assistants that assisted in the move-in process. Also present was Ernesto, a little tropical storm packed with rain and heavy winds. All in all, the relaxing summer is clearly behind us.

So, wondering about the “Sweet Sixteen” title are you? Nope I am not referring to the horrific MTV show. Not referring to the U.S. Open’s 4th round either. The N.Y. Met’s magic number to clinch a baseball playoff birth — good guess but also not right. (((As of 9/10 their magic number stands at just 6. Speaking of the Mets, you can check at the end of the entry for photos from the game I mentioned in my previous entry. We won’t talk about the game’s outcome…just see the picture of the final score.))) So what am I referring to? Well of course, the 2007 U.S. News and World Report’s Best National Universities ranking where Johns Hopkins stands alone at #16. The question is whether this is a SWEET 16???

Just over three weeks ago, the new rankings hit the bookstores / newsstands and all the “buzz” around them began anew. In fact, the rankings hit the Internet first and in the world of discussion forums like College Confidential that was all anyone could “talk” about. The media outlets also jumped on the bandwagon for a few days with tons of “newsworthy?” stories and now there is not one, not two, but three other rankings for everyone to go crazy about. (Yes my sarcasm should be quite evident!!!).

The buzz has died down finally so I thought it would be a perfect time to express my opinions. And please know that these are PERSONAL opinions; not the opinions of Johns Hopkins University nor the Johns Hopkins Admissions Office. As an admissions professional for close to nine years, I know the “rankings frenzy” quite well and fine-tuned my thoughts over those years. My opinions are based on my varied experiences as a high school student searching for the right college, as an admissions volunteer for four years at my Ivy League alma mater, as an Admissions professional at a “top 100” school for my first five years in the profession, and now as a senior Admissions professional at a “top 20” school entering my fourth year. In no way am I speaking for my colleagues, for my institution, or for Admissions professionals in general – but I know there are many who will agree with me (and often will express their thoughts more eloquently).

So I assume the biggest question is why the drop? I can fill you in on my theory, but ultimately the real answer to the question is “who knows?” The U.S. News ranking system is in no way an accurate system, as the formulas often change from year-to-year. In fact, the magazine even states, “Certainly, the college experience consists of a host of intangibles that cannot be reduced to mere numbers.”

Generally though the reason for the drop in my opinion can be related to one or all of the following factors:

  1. A drop in student selectivity. The acceptance rate used was that of the Class of 2009 = 35%. This was an unusually high acceptance rate, and if you look at the data for the Class of 2010 you will see the rate is now 27%. (((Remember these new rankings are based on statistics from two years ago, not the most recent data.)))
  2. A drop in faculty resources, specifically a rise in some of our class size statistics. This is a situation where the data collected and recorded by U.S. News does not accurately represent the Hopkins academic community. Simply summarized, the way we treat courses, sections, independent research, etc. does not mesh well with the strict measuring tools of their rankings methodology.
  3. Fewer ties. Last year and in previous years there were more ties in the top 20 schools, this year just three. (((OK, not really a valid argument, but it does seem strange. Plus, I like it when we are tied because then I can use the joke about how we are the exact same institution as the other school we are tied with.)))
  4. Gaming the rankings. More schools have begun to “work” their statistical reporting to better represent themselves in the rankings. (((Did someone say manipulation???)))

What is so interesting in this year’s ratings, is that as we drop 3 spots overall, we in fact gained in terms of the supposed most important factor, peer assessment, and remain in the top 10. The assumption that one could make then is that as our “academic excellence” assessment from “those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate” rating has risen, we have become a weaker institution overall. Does that make any sense???

Another interesting note about our specific ranking number is to see how much it has changed in the last 15 years (1991 – 2007):

’07 = 16; ’06 = 13; ’05 = 14; ’04 = 14; ’03 = 15; ’02 = 16; ’01 = 15; ’00 = 7; ’99 = 14; ’98 = 14; ’97 = 15; ’96 = 10; ’95 = 22; ’94 = 15; ’93 = 15; ’92 = 11; ’91 = 15

So from this we can deduce the best year to be at Hopkins was 2000 and worst was 1995. And for those who attended in 1991, well they were at a better school then today. But those who attended in 2002, well Hopkins was exactly the same as it is today. And what happened between 1995 and 1996? Does any of this make sense???

Actually yes. What the data shows is that Hopkins tends to always be ranked as one of the top 20 schools — not in the top 10, but traditionally in the mix of the next 10 schools. Aside from some unusual years, Hopkins has pretty steadily been ranked as the 14th, 15th, or 16th best school in the nation by U.S. News.

I actually think the bigger question that needs to be addressed has less to do with the specific rank but rather whether or not rankings matter? Though Admissions counselors like me are always frustrated when a conversation turns to rankings, in the end it is clear they matter. It is clear that rankings are here to stay. Why? Well, mainly because prospective students and families continue to buy the magazines and the media continues to focus on the topic when ever college admissions is discussed. Admissions professionals are forced to accept that a flawed system based on trivial factors has grown increasingly popular amongst prospective audiences and is now considered commonplace when students begin their college search process.

Related questions though are to what extent these rankings matter and at what level should they matter? Here is where the real debate begins, and these are the questions I have spent the most time thinking about over the past few weeks. As I move into my second decade in this profession I know that rankings will remain a necessary evil no matter what. I understand why most colleges and universities have accepted rankings, and even celebrate strong results (see Hopkins Med). But ultimately the issue rests on whether rankings and their methodology matter so much to influence admissions policy?

I not only accept the fact that students use rankings to both see a list of schools out there and to compare those schools — I also see value in this. I agree with U.S. News when they state, “rankings provide an excellent starting point…you can compare different schools’ numbers at a glance, and looking at unfamiliar schools that are ranked near schools you know can be a good way to broaden your search.” I worry about how much rankings matter when the following occur:

  • A parent remarks that their child will only be applying to “top 10″ schools. Or when a student states that they will attend the highest ranked school they are admitted to. Basically, I am overwhelmingly concerned when rankings are used as the most important factor in the decision making process for the prospective student and/or parent.
  • Colleges and Universities “fine-tune” their admissions practices to hopefully result in stronger rankings. Or when admissions administrators alter how applications are evaluated or how statistics are generated so that they work well in the U.S. News formula. Basically, once again I am quite concerned when rankings become the main impetus behind admissions policy.

In the past I have said that rankings don’t matter, that students should ignore U.S. News, and that colleges should not care. I have changed my opinion now and have accepted that rankings exist, and that for students starting the process they can be of assistance. But I am adamant in the feeling that rankings should never become the main college search method. Students should be much more concerned with researching schools, visiting campuses, interacting with current college students, and doing a personal assessment of interest to find that “RIGHT FIT.” When your opinion changes about a school because one year they are ranked #13 and the next they are #16 and the next they are ???, well that to me is a flawed process of finding the right fit.

I am even more adamant when I hear of schools altering their admissions practices so in the end their school can rise one, two, or three spots. Look at the last 15 years of rankings, not much changes from year to year. I work at Johns Hopkins because we do not let rankings influence they way we evaluate applicants. We do not let rankings shape how we conduct the admissions process. We do not fine-tune the way we do our jobs to rise to the #11 ranking. We judge a successful year on our own internal goals and our vision of what the ideal incoming Hopkins class should be. Just this past week I attended a full-day staff retreat with all my colleagues and you know what numbers we focused on: (1) 23% increase in applications last year; (2) an 8% drop in acceptance rate; (3) improved yield percentages; and (4) we also celebrated all the amazing improvements in student life for our undergraduates. The number 16 never came up.

To back up what I have been saying, I will let my boss have a word:

“The rankings are quite a rough measure, but because they set a tone out there among the public and influence the perceived quality of Hopkins with respect to our competitors, we take the matter of rankings very seriously. We want to put our best statistical foot forward. We do draw a line, however, at changing what we actually do, changing the nature of the education we offer, in response to the ranking methodology. We would not do that.”

The final question is what can/should be done? Here is where I must continue to think and form my thoughts. What I know is that selecting college should be about the RIGHT FIT. It is a grand investment and students and parents should invest much time and effort into researching every aspect. Colleges should be forthright in presenting their schools, understanding that every institute of higher education is distinct and not for all. We should strive for an ideal, and face our issues head on. What I also know is that a Utopian approach to college admissions will never occur. Rankings are a big business and are not going to go away.

What I hope can occur though is that the old standards be revised, and that all parties involved invest in a new system. Let’s focus on a real system of comparing schools. Let’s look at how students learn – how students engage – student satisfaction – student opinion. Let’s look at how schools use their resources – how faculty interact – how students succeed. Let’s focus on judging schools on the experience for an undergraduate student. If parents, students, and the media demand rankings, let’s invest in creating a less flawed, less controversial methodology. Let’s pull back the veil and end “the college admissions frenzy.”

As I end this extremely long post, please know this will be my last word on rankings for a long time. The Hopkins Insider is back and in the coming weeks I will get back to my usual posts — an inside look into Admissions, highlighting what is happening at Hopkins, and unusual pop culture references. However, if you are a “ratings” junkie, I encourage you to check out this College Confidential thread. I personally applaud the direction that Dickinson is pursuing, not so much for their new policy but because they are challenging the status quo. The impact rankings have is a major issue facing the field of College Admissions, and discussing a new approach or new ideas is absolutely needed these days.

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As promised, here are pictures from the Mets v. Phillies game I went with my Dad to last month. We sat in the front row along the third base line and it was fun even though the Mets lost 13-0, Pedro was injured in the first inning, and I missed a foul ball by inches (it was quite embarrassing). Enjoy. Mets3

*David Wright, Paul Lo Duca, and Chris Woodward warming up.

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Mets8

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*More warm-ups for David, Chris, and Lastings Milledge.

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Mets2 *Jose Reyes: look how close!

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Mets6 *The downward spiral begins. Pedro Martinez struggling.

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Mets5 *David going in to check on Pedro. It is all over and we in the first inning. How sad. Six runs in the first on the way to a 13-0 loss!!!

Mets1

3 Comments

  • By Sheila Tinn-Murphy, September 18, 2006 @ 9:05 PM

    I linked to the College Confidential you provided and on thread #19 the Vice President of Enrollment at Dickinson tells a great story of a parent encounter when he was Director of Enrollment at JHU.

  • By Daniel Creasy, September 27, 2006 @ 3:11 PM

    Sheila,
    I had heard that story from Bob Massa before, and it was one of the reasons I posted the thread. I think it raises some poignant points about this whole rankings thing.
    By the way, Jackie is great and I am so glad she has joined the Advisory Board and will be blogging soon.
    Cheers,
    Daniel

  • By Colleen, June 24, 2007 @ 12:55 PM

    That was quite an interesting post–reading the behind-the-scenes thoughts of JHU administration was indeed a tremendous opportunity. Thank you for posting it.
    Still, I cannot help but notice the parallels between the situation of school-rankings-impacting students-decisions and its counterpart SAT-scores-impacting-schools-decisions. Just like “admissions professionals are forced to accept that a flawed system based on trivial factors has grown increasingly popular…” so are students forced to accept that a single test score can make or break an application. It is fortunate that this does not plague Hopkins, as JHU takes a holistic approach to the applications…
    Still, it’s curious, isn’t it?

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