Suspect Sheepskins; U.S. News Spins a Yarn on College ratings.(OPED)

Article excerpt

Byline: James B. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Promotional information about colleges can be just as misleading as an Enron or Global Crossing prospectus. The annual U.S. News & World Report rating of colleges is out. Thousands of bright high school seniors and their parents will greedily digest it to decide what schools are worthy of their attention. Students with straight A averages and 1,400-plus SAT scores know their chances of attending one of the top schools are pretty good.

And what student wouldn't want to be able to tell people he's at Harvard, Stanford, or Swarthmore? What parents wouldn't enjoy the voluptuous glory of being able to say, "My son is at Princeton?"

But do U.S. News rankings truly foretell the quality of education available at its "best" schools?

Those ratings have been the most widely read campus evaluations for more than a decade. Millions uncritically accept U.S. News' gauge of which are the top colleges and universities. The magazine's word is vital for many families in selecting the institution that will prepare junior for life. But how does U.S. News evaluate colleges? How important are the criteria its uses to rank schools?

U.S. News says that its rankings rely "on quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality." The greatest weight is given to "academic reputation" or what those experts say are the best schools. But the experts are college presidents, admissions officers and provosts, the same people who have led higher education in its decline into political correctness and lowered academic standards. They are clearly not people who would question whether the top schools of 30 years ago are necessarily the leading colleges today. Other criteria in descending order of importance are graduation rates, faculty resources, student selectivity, spending per student and alumni giving.

Perhaps these facts are important to education experts. But they are not important to me. What I want to know as a parent is exactly what my son or daughter will be taught. Is there a core curriculum? If not, are there rigorous distribution requirements that will ensure a broad education? Is American history required? (At many schools it is not.) Is the faculty philosophically balanced and dedicated to teaching or is it a collection of academic activists bent on imprinting its ideology on young people? Are there speech codes? Have postmodernists taken over to teach their subjects through the prisms of race, class, and sex? These are the questions that should concern us. But they are questions that U. …