As she ends her tenure at Syracuse University, Chancellor Nancy Cantor leaves behind a mixed legacy. During her 9 1/2 years at the university, she has aggressively worked to improve the the city of Syracuse as well as the town-gown relationship, pulled $1 billion in capital contributions, and expanded the campus with several building projects. However, SU’s rankings have slipped, much to the dismay of stakeholders at Syracuse University. In the mid-90′s, prior to Cantor’s hiring, SU was consistently ranked in the 40s on U.S. News and World Report‘s annual college ranking list. Now, Syracuse University has dropped to rank at #63. Cantor’s stance on college rankings has sparked debate about the value of such reports.
Syracuse University’s rankings have slipped as result of several factors. An often cited reason is Cantor’s changes in admissions policy. When she came to SU, a majority of the student population was well-to-do, white, and from the Northeast. Cantor chose to buck the historical trend of focusing on this limited demographic. “If you were a strategic business you would be optimizing on what the world is going to look like,” she reported to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “You wouldn’t be holding on for dear life to your brand.” Cantor brought minority enrollment from 18.5% to a high of 32% in 2011 while also increasing undergraduate enrollment by 22%. As a result, SU experienced an all-time high acceptance rate of 60% in 2011, leading to lower rankings on the U.S. News list.
This is a cause for concern for some students and faculty, as reported by the SU student paper, The Daily Orange, in 2011; “The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.” Cantor defended the stability of SU in spite of a rankings slip, saying “U.S, News rewards institutions for the number of students whom they can reject, not for whom they reach.” Syracuse, she said, was “succeeding – with or without the imprimatur of popular magazine rankings.”
Cantor has not made an effort to improve Syracuse’s U.S. News rankings as a matter of principle. In a piece she wrote for the Huffington Post, Cantor criticizes the rankings as volatile and mysterious, and a tool to sell magazines. To her, they “simply don’t begin to comprehensively capture the strategic directions that most of higher education must follow to establish secure footholds in what is often referred to as a “new normal” world.” Indeed, a look into U.S. News’ methods for ranking schools reveals that little meaningful data is actually communicated through the annual list. The Atlantic magazine tends to agree, saying “The rankings don’t take into account measures of the quality of education at each institution, nor is there any consideration of outcomes” such as graduation or job placement rates.
Worryingly, the popularity and influence of the annual U.S. News list motivates schools to cheat the system in order to achieve a higher ranking. In recent years several schools have admitted to providing false reports to U.S. News, including Providence College, Claremont McKenna College, Emory University, George Washington University, Tulane University, and Bucknell University. Additionally, a large percentage (about 22.5-25%) of the ranking is determined by reputational measure determined by peer assessments by higher education professionals. According to Malcolm Gladwell, this reputational measure is simply a collection of “prejudices” that turn the U.S. News rankings into a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that rewards historically elite institutions.
While it is easy to determine that the annual U.S. News list is, at best, an imperfect assessment, it is difficult to discredit its enormous reach and influence. With a circulation of over 1 million subscribers (and an even wider audience discovering these rankings secondhand via advertising, news reports, and articles), this list remains an extremely influential source of information to prospective students and to potential financial donors. As reported in the Daily Orange,
“[Chancellor Cantor] snuffed the rankings off by saying they’re going obsolete, but they’re not going obsolete,” said Joel Kaplan, an associate dean at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “That’s what people are going to look at when they’re looking to go to college. I hate the notion that we could lose quality students because of that.”
and as reported on Inside Higher Ed,
“When you’re charging what we’re charging, [ranking] matters,” said Robert McClure, a professor in Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Public Policy. “But to sit around and say [rankings] don’t mean anything – nonsense. They mean lots and lots of dollars; I wish it weren’t so.”
With her tenure as Chancellor at an end, Syracuse University will again return to the rankings game with newly appointed Chancellor Kent Syverud, scheduled to begin on January 14 of this year. His position on the role of U.S. News rankings is more pragmatic than that of Nancy Cantor. In a November radio interview, he spoke of rankings, “They are imperfect, their metrics are manipulable and in some ways they’re quite troubling what they value, but they matter because they affect decision-making of constituencies that matter to universities.”
Will a new Chancellor with a fresh attitude towards the U.S. News list be able to successfully improve Syracuse University’s ranking? It’s definitely something to keep an eye on in the coming years.
How have the annual college rankings affected your school’s admissions policies?