College Ranking Systems and the Invisible Adult Student
Whether we are looking at the college rankings of U.S. News and World Report, Best Colleges.com, Forbes or Money magazines, or the comparative listing of the U.S. Government’s College Scorecard, two central questions exist:
1. What do these tools really tell us about a postsecondary institution?
2. Can the information be used in helping all students make an informed decision of where to attend?
The methodology and criteria used to rank, rate or compare undergraduate institutions are designed to measure specific constructs that are purported to determine the institution’s effectiveness in serving and graduating its students. The problem is that the constructs generally apply to only one segment of the student population—those traditional undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 22—and are therefore of limited use to our growing adult population of students age 25 and over.
Unfortunately, when it comes to college rankings, there isn’t much incentive to be among the best colleges that serve adult students. In his critique of the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings, Robert Woodbury wrote that in order to score well, institutions should avoid serving non-traditional students, since “the system is stacked against colleges that enroll part-time, commuter, older, at-risk or more ethnically and racially diverse student bodies.”
Standard measures used in college rankings, such as retention rates of full-time first-year students and four-to-six year graduation rates, don’t apply to adults attending on a part-time basis or those who return to school with prior college experience. In addition, the measures of student selectivity in admissions (by SAT/ ACT scores and/or high school class rank) are geared for traditional-age students coming straight out of the K-12 system.
The rankings promote gamesmanship among colleges and universities to increase their scores as they compete with peer institutions. While most consumers enjoy the concept of rankings, they are seldom aware of how the game works. For example, the factor of student selectivity can be increased by encouraging more applications, even from those students who have no chance of being admitted. This helps to achieve a lower ratio of students admitted. Since class size is part of the faculty resources score in the U.S. News and World Report Rankings, colleges can increase the number of classes with 20 students or less, while increasing only slightly the number of classes with 50 students or more while bringing more students into those already-large classes. After all, whether a course has 50 students or 100 students, it is still only one course.
Job attainment and earnings are clearly important to all students and are a major component of the College Scorecard. But much of these results will depend on the college’s curriculum. Jonathan Rothwell found, “A standard deviation in curriculum value is worth an estimated 11 percent in higher annual earnings using Scorecard data and 7 percent using Payscale data.” That means colleges that offer more STEM related programs receive higher scores on graduate earnings.
Nowhere else in postsecondary education is the adult student as invisible as in the college ranking system, despite the fact that adults comprise approximately 40 percent of the student population and will continue to grow. From 2012 to 2023, the National Center for Education Statistics projects a 12-percent increase of students under age 25, but a 20-percent increase of students age 25 and over, most of whom will be attending college on a part-time basis.
So how can college rankings be of practical use for adult students? First, they need to address those factors at the institution that are most important to adults. Because of the diversity in ages and backgrounds among the adult student population, it’s more difficult to assess such factors, but not impossible. What is important to adults will vary depending on their life stage, situation, support structures, jobs and motivation.
Let’s look at an example of one adult student who is exploring a bachelor’s degree:
Susan, a 28-yea- old single mother of a toddler, hasn’t been to school since she left college at age 19. She works in the human resource department of a company and wants to advance, whether it’s there or elsewhere. She’s apprehensive about returning to school, but also excited about the prospects. How might college rankings help her?
While the College Scorecard will help Susan identify the annual costs, graduation rates (although these will not be applicable to her since she is not a first-time student) and the earnings of those students who graduated with a similar major, Susan would benefit from a ranking system that measured such factors as:
- Quality of student advising
- Transfer-friendly programs
- Availability of and assistance with Prior Learning Assessment
- Availability of quality day care and/or pre-school
- Financial aid assistance for part-time students
- Academic support services during days, evenings and weekends
- Online tutoring
- Responsive, committed faculty who know how to teach adult learners
- Library resources
- Career advising and assistance
- Food service during all hours that that classes are offered.
These are critical for non-traditional students like Susan and all of these items can be measured.
In 2016, the College Scorecard “will begin reporting completion rates for the other subsets of their students: first-time, part-time students; non-first-time, full-time students; and non-first-time, part-time students.” This will be a major step in acknowledging the omnipresence of adult students and providing information about retention and completion rates that are reflective of their enrollment status. Other information that would benefit non-traditional students is urgently needed for the current rankings to address all undergraduate students currently attending our institutions.
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 Robert J. Woodbury, “U.S. News’s Corrupt College Rankings,” College Advisor of New England, 2014.
 Jonathan Rothwell, “Understanding the College Scorecard,” Brookings, September 28, 2015.
 U.S. Department of Education, “Better Information for Better College Choice & Institutional Performance,” September 2015.
Author Perspective: Administrator