If the US News and World Report’s announcement to begin “rating” online colleges and universities turned into something of value and substance? For years, the USNWR annual edition on college ratings has generated a wide variety of responses.
· The true elite institutions, or top “Medallion Institutions” as Jane Wellman of the Delta Project has labeled them, don’t worry much about the ratings, because they know they will come out at or near the top in what is essentially a non-analytic process based largely on reputation.
· Next come the institutions “in the middle” that publicly decry the ratings and the processes used to determine them, while privately spending time, energy, and money going all-out to change their results so that their institution looks better the next year.
· And finally there is everyone else, those who lie beyond the shadow or sunshine cast by USNWR’s Annual Report and don’t worry too much about something that they cannot affect or that ignores them entirely.
As most close watchers of this annual event know, the methods used are remarkably “old school” (pun intended). As such, they are largely reputational and input-based, not results-oriented and outcomes-based. This is achieved by polling, asking selected others what they think about specific colleges, special strengths, the quality of their library, and so on. This non-analytic approach does nothing to assist either colleges in their attempts to improve teaching and learning or potential students (and their parents when they are younger) in learning more about their academic quality, impact on graduates, and their actual effectiveness and efficiency in delivering their academic services. By their very nature, however, online programs, whether they are non-profit (Rio Salado Community College, Western Governors’ University, The University of Maryland University College) or for-profit (Capella University, Walden University, or Kaplan University), are more analytical and metrics-oriented in their quality assessments of student learning and overall institutional effectiveness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, as the Gates and Lumina Foundations search for better practices that attain improved academic assessment, effectiveness and efficiency, and the National Governor’s Association works to develop and promote common core standards, if the USNWR aligned its new report with these efforts and published findings that based an institution’s reputation on performance with specific student populations organized by risk factors? If they looked at the time to degree, cost of the degree, student satisfaction, change in ability to read, write, and analyze as well as their actual level of preparedness in the certificate or degree programs of their choice? That would be wonderful, indeed, for learners, policy-makers, employers, and all the other people who spend their own or someone else’s money to make educational quality available to the majority in America at a price they can afford.