Opvijzelen in rankings? Het kan.

Nieuws | de redactie
9 juni 2009 | Wat kunnen HO-instellingen doen om systemen als THES-rankings en Studiekeuze123 te manipuleren? Veel zo blijkt. En het gebeurt ook, zo bleek bij een zeer onthullende presentatie in de USA door Clemson University. Leerzaam voor HO-instellingen bij ons die hun marktaandeel en reputatie willen opvijzelen. "I'm confident my president is not the only one who does that."

A presentation by Catherine Watt, the former institutional researcher and now a staff member at Clemson University, laid bare in a way that is usually left to the imagination the steps that Clemson has (rather brazenly) taken since 2001 to move from 38th to 22nd in U.S. News’s ranking of public research universities. This was no accident.

Alles draait om manipulatie indicatoren

When President James F. Barker took over the South Carolina institution in 2001, he vowed in his initial interview to move Clemson into the top 20 (a distinction that many research universities covet, but few can achieve, given that most of those already in the top 20 aren’t eager to relinquish their spots). Although many people on the campus were skeptical, Clemson has pursued the goal almost single-mindedly, seeking to “affect — I’m hesitating to use the word ‘manipulate,’ ” Watt said — “every possible indicator to the greatest extent possible.” She added: “It is the thing around which almost everything revolves for the president’s office.”

That statement was among the first at Watt’s session that provoked murmurs of discomfort (and more) from the audience — there would be many more as she described the various steps Clemson had taken to alter its profile in order to improve its U.S. News standing. Watt, director of the Alliance for Research on Higher Education at Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs, subtly made clear her own discomfort with Clemson’s approach.

Spelen met klassegrootte

The easiest moves, she said, revolved around class size: Clemson has significantly increased the proportion of its classes with fewer than 20 students, one key U.S. News indicator of a strong student experience. While Clemson has always had comparatively small class sizes for a public land-grant university, it has focused, Watt said, on trying to bump sections with 20 and 25 students down to 18 or 19, but letting a class with 55 rise to 70. “Two or three students here and there, what a difference it can make,” she said. “It’s manipulation around the edges.”

Clemson has also transformed its admissions standards, more or less ceasing to admit full-time, first-time undergraduates who are not in the top third of their high school classes, and constantly re-assessing its SAT average throughout the admissions cycle, Watt said, so that admissions officials know whether they “have to increase the SAT score in the next round” of students.


Bringing about other changes has been harder, Watt continued, as she described what she called the “more questionable aspects of what we’ve done.” The university has ratcheted up the faculty salaries it reports to U.S. News by about $20,000, which it has achieved by actually increasing spending (paid for largely through increased tuition) and by altering the way it relays the data to the magazine’s editors.

Clemson folded its benefit payments into the average faculty pay figure it reports to U.S. News, requiring the institutional research office to produce several different definitions of faculty pay for U.S. News, the American Association of University Professors and other surveys, Watt said. (Clarifying Clemson’s approach after the panel for a reporter and an interested Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News’s college rankings, Watt said that the university had added benefits to its faculty salary reporting to U.S. News after previously having failed to do so, as the magazine requires. So its jump came not from double counting or including information that it should not have, but from playing catchup.)

In reporting institutional financial information to the magazine, she said, Clemson runs “multiple definitions to figure out where we can move things around to make them look best” in the rankings. Academic expenditures are emphasized and administrative overhead minimized wherever possible, within reason, she said. The university has encouraged as many alumni as possible to send in at least $5 to help bring up their giving rate, and hired a firm to find disconnected alumni.

Alle anderen omlaag

And to actual gasps from some members of the audience, Watt said that Clemson officials, in filling out the reputational survey form for presidents, rate “all programs other than Clemson below average,” to make the university look better. “And I’m confident my president is not the only one who does that,” Watt said.

Taken together, the changes have had an impact on numerous U.S. News indicators: the proportion of freshmen who were in the top 10 percent of their high school class has risen to 42 from 34 percent; student to faculty ratio has dropped to 14:1 from 16:1; the retention rate of freshmen has climbed to 89 from 82 percent and the graduation rate to 78 from 72 percent. And as those last few results show, Watt said, many of the changes Clemson has made have helped students. [Lees meer hier bij Inside HigherEd]

De Clemson-universiteit uit South Carolina reageerde woedend op de onthullingen en zegt onder meer: ‘The accusation that Clemson, its staff and administrators have engaged in unethical conduct to achieve a higher ranking is untrue and unfairly disparages the sincere, unwavering and effective efforts of faculty and staff to improve academic quality over the past 10 years. While we have publicly stated our goal of a Top 20 ranking, we have repeatedly stressed that we use the criteria as indicators of quality improvement and view a ranking as the byproduct, not the objective.

To some extent the “evidence” of manipulation shared at the Association for Institutional Research meeting falls into the category of the same old “urban legends” that Clemson has been dealing since adopting the vision of becoming one of the nation’s top-ranked public universities. Every year or two, one of these myths starts making the rounds again. But the insinuation of unethical behavior crosses the line.’

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