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Casper tells parents how he feels about college rankings

President Gerhard Casper took advantage of his annual address to Stanford parents to explain his misgivings about the U.S. News and World Report college rankings.

Responding to a parent's question, Casper was eager to share his views on the controversial subject with about 1,300 parents who had assembled in Memorial Auditorium on Feb. 28 to hear him speak as part of Parents Weekend activities.

"As many of you know," the president said, "I recently picked a fight with U.S. News and World Report about its rankings, which I think are particularly distorting and irrelevant to the college choosing process."

Casper, who spoke about a wide range of issues from distance learning to the early decision process in admissions, framed his opening remarks by discussing the importance of student/teacher interactions in the classroom and in the laboratory. Responding to a parent's question, he went on to say that an educational experience cannot be measured statistically.

"All you can do is look at whether certain infrastructure conditions are given that make it possible for somebody to experience a good educational experience," he said.

To that end, he continued, there are a few categories in the magazine's college rankings that are meaningful, such as student/teacher ratios, educational expenditures per student and actual graduation rates.

Casper said that if he decides to withdraw Stanford from consideration in the magazine's rankings, the university would continue to make most of the data available to parents and students on an annual basis.

What roils him most about the magazine's ranking system is the fact that the definitions for many of the categories are vague. Take, for example, the number of faculty on the professoriate. There are so many different categories of faculty that it's difficult to determine who to include in the survey, he said.

"I know of a university that was dissatisfied with how it had ranked on the student/teacher ratio. It had counted 1,200 faculty. Lo and behold, last year, it came up with 1,900 faculty members. Since I happen to know the university, 1,900 is a completely implausible number," Casper said. "I am not saying the university committed fraud. But the definition used by U.S. News was such that [the university] found a way that allowed it to increase the number."

To make matters worse, Casper said, the magazine constantly changes its criteria under the guise of "improvement." The end result of these changes, Casper said, is a boost in sales because universities wind up switching places in the rankings on a yearly basis.

"Johns Hopkins two years ago was twenty-second best, last year it was tenth best and this year it was fifteenth best. Come on, who are you kidding?" said Casper, who pointed out that universities tend to be relatively stable institutions when it comes to educational quality.

In the area of faculty resources, he continued, Harvard was number one last year and this year it was number 11. Stanford was number three last year and this year it was number 15. "Nothing has changed in our resources substantially from one year to another," said Casper, who added "that the competition hasn't much improved their resources over us either."

He reminded parents that the college selection process is not exactly a scientific choice made by students and parents. "There are lots of irrational elements, peer pressures and other issues" that come into play when deciding which college to attend, he said.

"American education is a highly diverse system and there are many opportunities for getting an excellent education," Casper concluded. "For many students, a university that doesn't rank in the top 150 is actually an ideal choice for them for reasons that are hard to quantify."


By Marisa Cigarroa