Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Online College Rankings Expand, Encourage Transparency

OEDb's "Online College Rankings 2008" provides valuable information and insight into established and emerging online college programs. More importantly, OEDb (http://www.oedb.org) is causing a serious re-evaluation of the way that colleges are assessed for quality and ranked. Their methodology goes into the heart of the educational experience provided by online colleges in ways that the US News and World Report's college ranking system cannot.

This is not to say that people will stop trusting the US News and World Report's "America's Best Colleges" report. http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/usnews/edu/college/rankings/rankindex_brief.php. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings mentioned the report's popularity and impact: "If you ever doubt the need or appetite for your mission, consider the U.S. News college rankings. It's been called the "swimsuit edition" of postsecondary reporting. Within 72 hours of its release, the U.S. News website was viewed 10 million times." http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2007/12/12182007.html

For many reasons, their rankings will continue to be a guideline for most people who are trying to compare colleges. The rankings are especially effective for colleges with large on-campus presences and a tradition of residential living, as well as active alumni.

However, the OEDb addresses a world that is largely overlooked by the US News and World Report's rankings OEDb focuses on he changing world of online colleges and online education masters, and the growing acceptance of, and even preference for, 100% online and/or hybrid (blended online and face-to-face) instruction. The OEDb Online College Rankings reflect today's realities, and they give a glimpse of a technology-enhanced future, in which computer-based distance programs (which includes wireless technologies, smartphones, digital devices, as well as internet functionality and new Web 2.0 applications).

OEDb also responds to many of the criteria used by important and influential sources of online college information.

In many ways, the criteria used by OEDb respond in a positive way to the remarks made by Secretary Spellings, on December 17, 2008, when she called for more transparency in assessing colleges and universities in address to the semiannual meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).

Instead of focusing primarily on acceptance rates, endowments, graduation rates, and student satisfaction, the OEDb ratings use the following inclusion criteria:

1. The college must be accredited
2. The college must be listed in the College Navigator.
3. The college must offer more than one undergraduate degree-granting program online.
4. The college, if campus-based, must offer at least 50% of its undergraduate degree-granting programs online.

OEDb ranking metrics include:

Acceptance rate
Financial aid
Graduation rate
Peer web citations
Retention rate
Scholarly citations
Student-faculty ratio
Years accredited

Obviously, in the rapidly evolving world of online education, any ranking metrics are a work in progress, since technology advances may undermine certain core assumptions about the validity of a particular metric. Further, the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis has reached into the credit market for student loans, which has had an impact on all student loan lending.

Neverthess, or because of this, OEDb is blazing an important and refreshing new path in the area of ranking colleges. It also responds to recent critiques of well-established ranking systems, including the U.S. News and World Report's "America's Best Colleges" reports.

A recent online debate, "Throw the Book at College Rankings" at businessweek.com (http://www.businessweek.com/debateroom/archives/2007/04/throw_the_book.html) calls into question the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. At the heart of the debate is the perceived desirability of Ivy League schools and "Ivy Plus," and the fact that their perceived desirability encourages many more people to apply than for whom there are spaces. The resulting acceptance rate is, in essence, a distortion, and reflects public opinion and marketing efficacy as well as the number of highly qualified applicants and acceptances.

Further skewing the statistics are ones based on faculty productivity. In "The Dangerous Wealth of the Ivy League," Businessweek.com authors Anthony Bianco and Sonal Rupani point out that the "Ivy Plus" (Princeton, the seven other members of the Ivy League, plus Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology), have made an effort to dedicate funds to building a base of prestigious, high-recognition faculty members.

Accused of "stealing stars," Ivy Plus institutions have found ways to hire the brightest-shining stars away from budget-pressed public and private institutions. Budgets dedicated to "At Harvard, compensation and benefits accounted for 49% of its $3.2 billion in operating expenses in 2006-07. Although salary gains have consistently outpaced inflation, it is the addition of new teaching positions that is chiefly responsible for driving up the cost of instruction." (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_50/b4062038784589_page_2.htm, 2007, p. 2)

Are the faculty members and the bearers of endowed chairs actually working now, or were most of their publications and their seminal research produced before they were hired? The authors of the article suggest that many of the most productive faculty members in Ivy League institutions published the bulk of their work while they were at other colleges. Later, when the professors gained the recognition they had earned through their hard work, the well-funded colleges were able to make them a very nice offer and to achieve their stated objectives of improving the quality of faculty. The productive scholars and researchers deserved to be rewarded for their efforts. So, where's the complaint?

The problem is that when such numbers are used in college rankings, it does not give any recognition to the colleges who supported the faculty members during their formative years, and even into their most successful phases. The rankings recognize the affiliation as it is now. According to the authors of "The Dangerous Wealth of the Ivy League," such a system influences public perception (and thus contributions). The rich and the powerful become more rich and powerful.

In this situation, the OEDb's Online College Rankings is a welcome change of pace. One could argue that their rubric could be applied to face-to-face colleges as well as online, since many resources are online and many courses are delivered in a hybrid format, which combines face to face and online.


Bianco, A, and Rupani, S. (2007). The dangerous wealth of the Ivy League. Businessweek.com November 29, 2007. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_50/b4062038784589.htm, accessed February 4, 2008.

Businessweek.com (2007). "Throw the Book at College Rankings" April 2007, http://www.businessweek.com/debateroom/archives/2007/04/throw_the_book.html, accessed on February 4, 2008.

OEDb. (2008). Online College Rankings 2008. http://oedb.org/rankings accessed January 31, 2007.

Spellings, M. (2007). Secretary Spellings Encourages Greater Transparency and Accountability in Higher Education at the National Accreditation Meeting. December 17, 2007. http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2007/12/12182007.html accessed February 4, 2008.

USNews.com (2008). America's Best Colleges 2008. http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/usnews/edu/college/rankings/rankindex_brief.php, accessed February 5, 2008.

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