Rankings, Elite Online BA, and Future of the SAT

Monday, December 12, 2022 - Elite law schools are ditching the U.S. News rankings but what does it mean for the undergrad rankings? Also, Georgetown is making a bet on an online undergrad degree with Coursera. Plus, Michael asks about Jeff's piece for New York Magazine on the SATs. Send us your questions! This episode made possible with support from Course Hero, Ascendium Education Group, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Jeff Selingo:

So Michael, along with the rest of higher education, we're about to go on our annual holiday break. And I guess for all the talk about innovation on this show, we seem to just fall in line when it comes to this traditional academic calendar, don't we?

Michael Horn:

Jeff, I guess there are limits to our own innovation as well, I guess, but we still have two episodes left in 2022. So don't start celebrating your holidays just yet. Indeed, we're going to talk about a few headlines today in case you want to stoke the family conversations at the holidays with news about higher ed, from the college rankings to the future of online education at selective universities, to what does an SAT score mean these days? These are all the topics we'll be tackling on this episode of Future U.


This episode is brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, working to eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success through innovation, data and information, policy, and institutional transformation. This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit Ascendiumphilanthropy.org.

And by Course Hero, from creating more engaging syllabi to building an inclusive and impactful curriculum, Course Hero is a professional learning community where more than 100,000 teachers share resources and strategies for helping students succeed. Get access to the latest teaching events, workshops and certification courses by joining Course Hero's Professional Learning Community. Join today at coursehero.com/educators.

Subscribe to Future U wherever you get your podcasts. And if you enjoy the show, share it with your friends, so weathers can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. One of the continuing themes we keep returning to on this podcast is the long-term impact of the pandemic, of course, on higher ed on all fronts. We've heard on several stops on our campus tour this year as well as in other interviews, the need for flexibility and optionality and learning and what does that mean for the future of hybrid and online learning in higher ed, which truthfully on a whole was pretty resistant to digital education and learning at scale before the pandemic.

Now, a survey of college presidents that was released recently by Bayview Analytics, which was formally the Babson Survey Research Group, surprisingly found that two and four year public colleges are most interested in doing more with online and hybrid courses, and more than half of private institutions are adding them as well. And so then there's this news, Michael, out of Georgetown University, which is teaming up with Coursera for a bachelor of arts degree in liberal studies.

Now, this is the first entirely online liberal arts degree on Coursera, which of course is now the publicly traded company, but really started in the midst of the MOOC mania a decade ago with massively online open courses. Now, this degree is being billed as a transfer program for the 39 million Americans who have left college short of a degree. Students can transfer up to 64 credits, and if they do, the degree will be about $22,000.

So Michael, I was just wondering, given how difficult it is to get into Georgetown as a traditional undergraduate, I started to wonder if this could be an end run around their typical admissions office, but they're very clear on their website when I checked it that this is meant to be for students who have completed some coursework at a college or have professional military or life experience prior to applying to the program.

Now, they will consider students without previous college experience for provisional admission, which means you could attend a few classes to see how you might do before getting fully accepted. So I'm just kind of curious, what do you make of this move by Coursera and Georgetown? Because up until now online degrees at selective institutions have only been really at the graduate level. Is this an indication that that market is tapped out?

Michael Horn:

Well, Jeff, I have a few reactions as we sort of puzzle through this together because there are some clues I think in the nuance as to what's going on here. So first, this degree will actually be from Georgetown University's School of Continuing studies or what they call SCS, which has had an in-person Bachelor of Arts degrees and liberal studies since 1974, but only as an in-person program. And here's the kicker, I think, Jeff, which is that although it's been around since 1974, enrollment in that in-person program has been on the decline since 2014.

So now as I read it, this is Georgetown in essence saying, "We need to get this thing online." And if you look at continuing education schools writ large around the US at selective college, this isn't actually all that new. We had Hunt Lambert on the show in our first season, I believe. He was at the time the dean of Harvard's Continuing Education School and they were online with something like 20,000 students or something in that neighborhood, Jeff.

So my sense is that from Georgetown's perspective, this is more about Georgetown getting with the times, if you will. Now, what's interesting is that they chose to partner with an outside vendor, which if you look around the country, a lot of schools of continuing education often don't do. They like to do this stuff themselves. So that's interesting. And it gets Coursera it's 40th degree program. And by the way, I had no idea they had that many degree programs, I confess. And its first liberal arts one, which I think is symbolically important because OPMs, they've had a lot of success in graduate studies and significantly less success as a general rule in undergraduate studies where the snooze of the world, Southern New Hampshire universities are quite large.

But in reality, it may be less groundbreaking than it first seems, given that it's with the school of continuing studies, which tend to be the more entrepreneurial units on campuses to begin with. In other words, Jeff, I don't think this is a sign that Georgetown is changing its admission standards and its core undergraduate program, which is relevant because you noted in a recent lengthy feature article for the New York Magazine that Georgetown is one of the few top selective institutions that is sort of standing at top of trend in saying, "No, not us." And that trend, of course is dropping the SAT or ACT score as a requirement for admission.

And indeed, Georgetown has actually leaned into those standardized tests even as some 600 plus institutions went test optional during the pandemic. Now, you made reference that you were working on the story a few months ago on the podcast, and I will tell all of our listeners, check it out, NewYorkmag.com because it was a really terrific story. But for those just tuning in right now, what's the upshot on this story?

Jeff Selingo:

Well, Michael, first of all, thank you. It was probably one of the more difficult pieces that I've worked on in quite some time. It went through several drafts and it was really long, 6,000 plus words. And while the piece started out with a goal to tell the inside story about MIT's decision to go back to the test, that was the original intent of the piece, it really turned into one that was more about what the SAT even means anymore. Since most the lead in selective colleges and universities aren't returning to the test as quickly as people first thought. And one reason so many schools have continued to extend their test optional policy, Harvard, for example, is going out a couple more years yet, it's so that they can conduct an AB test essentially, comparing how those undergraduates who withheld their scores fare over their college careers compared with those who included the test scores.

And they're going to do that based on their grades and how many return to campus for their sophomore year, their junior year. And so they need a couple of years to conduct that AB test. Now, MIT basically decided it didn't need to do that, rather they looked backward at historical data the school had been collecting on students since the early 2000s when MIT used to accept students with a wider range of SAT scores than they do today.

And one thing they knew is that those kids with lower SAT scores back in the early 2000s simply didn't graduate at the same rate as those with higher scores. And that was especially true at MIT for underrepresented students, and particularly if you look at their statistics for black students. So MIT really felt they needed the score because nothing else in the application process over the last two years when they were kind of test optional, really served as a viable proxy to understand if students could do the work at MIT.

Now, this question on the enrollment of underrepresented students and the role the SAT plays in that is going to, I think become so much more important given the Supreme Court decision that will be coming in the Harvard and UNC admissions case this coming June. And I think given the makeup of the court, we all think where this is going in terms of turning down affirmative action, because even the college board in its own studies has found that more than half of the applicants at highly selected private colleges did not disclose a test score over the past two years. And at the same time, these schools saw their numbers rise among some of their biggest emissions priorities, that being black students, low income students, students with high GPAs. So it's going to make it really difficult, I think, for those highly selective colleges to go back to testing, especially if the Supreme Court says they can't use race in admissions.

Now, this is not necessarily good news for students and counselors who are really trying to navigate what they told me during the reporting from this piece is a new admissions landscape. Two years in, counselors tell me they have no idea what is a good score anymore. Do I submit a score or not? And if so, should all the colleges on the students list get their score? What was interesting, even Stu Schmill, who's the dean of admissions at MIT, he told me he gets these questions from friends whose children are applying to other colleges. And he had this great quote in the piece. He said, "I never have a good answer for them. I have no idea." And this is a guy who's been in admissions for like 25 plus years.

I also talked with the director of college counseling at Stuyvesant High School in New York, which we know is one of the top high schools in the country. And as we were talking, he pulled up the admissions results for students going back to 2016, and he rattled off a bunch of college names as I tell him the story, most of the same number of students are getting into the usual suspects in the Ivy League just like they did six years ago. Now many more are applying as well. But what really surprised me, and I think surprised many of our readers is the next set of college, as he mentioned, places like Northeastern, Case Western, Boston University, those places, way many more students are applying than they did in 2016. But fewer Stuyvesant students are getting in.

Just take Northeastern University. In 2016, he had 300 students apply, and 91 were admitted. Last year he had more than 400 students apply, but only 49 were admitted. And so what's ended up happening is students at Stuyvesant, for example, now are going to places like Binghamton.

And it's not that there's anything wrong with Binghamton, but that used to be a safety school for students at Stuyvesant and now it's becoming one of their top choices because it's the only place they could get in.

So finally, Michael, what I think is worth a follow up that I really want to do is what's happening at places like Clemson and Auburn and other schools that for years have been kind of on the outside looking in on the rankings that are using this moment as a way to bolster their rankings by accepting kids with only high SAT scores. So for example, I talked with a former college counselor at Langley High School, which is a top ranked high school in the wealthy suburbs outside of Washington, DC here. And she heard from admissions counselors at several public universities that a few of her seniors who were rejected last year might have been accepted if they had not submitted their SAT scores, which were around 1350.

Now, a 1350 would've been considered a good score in the past at these schools like a Clemson. But now when only applicant submitting scores are mostly those well above the averages, the expectations of admissions officers at these places have also risen with the scores. And that's especially true with applicants from academic powerhouses like Langley where they know the students can do the work.

And so how this plays into the college rankings is critical. And of course, Michael, college rankings have been long a source of debate and contention among college leaders, but something institutions still cooperated with for the most part. And what's interesting now is they're under threat in a way that we haven't seen since their beginnings in the 1980s.

In recent weeks, a spate of top law schools, 11 so far, including Yale and Harvard and Pan, have announced they won't be participating in the US News and World Report rankings. And when we come back from the short break, we're going to talk about how real this threat is to something we all pay attention to. And those, of course, are the rankings.

This episode is being brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Today's college students are more than just students. They are workers, parents, and caregivers and neighbors, and colleges and universities need to change to meet their changing needs. Learn more about the foundation's efforts to transform institutions to be more student-centered at USprogram.gatesfoundation.org.

Michael Horn:

This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student-centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.

Jeff Selingo:

So welcome back to Future U where we're discussing some recent headlines in higher ed. And we mentioned right before the break, the big news in recent weeks about the nearly dozen law schools that have pulled out of the US News and World Report rankings. And so what do you make of this, Michael?

Michael Horn:

Well, Jeff, I'll note up front that you, not me, are our resident expert on college rankings from your past experience, but we'll get to that in a moment. My quick take though is a critic of the rankings is because I've said historically they've all been about the inputs, not about outcomes and not just not about outcomes, but rankings typically have not shown what in K-12 we would call the value add of school or in higher ed, some like to call the distance traveled of how it's measured, really in the words of the ASU mission statement, not by whom it excludes but by whom it includes and how they succeed regardless of their starting point.

So as a general rule, Jeff, I like it when folks stop playing the US news rankings game. With that said, I will note that a lot of commentators have thrown shade at those leaving the rankings for a variety of reasons.

Some have noted how the timing is awfully and suspiciously close to that looming Supreme Court decision around affirmative action that you referenced. And that the less transparency around who those schools are admitting, perhaps that's better for them to sort of stay out of the way of whatever the new legal precedent will be.

Others like our friend Ryan Craig, have noted that these decisions really only impact a few students, relatively speaking, so maybe we're making too much out of it. And Megan Ricardo, of course at the Washington Post basically said, "It's all well and good for Yale to opt out, but this doesn't actually serve students who might apply to lower ranked schools who rely on rankings to sort of help guide them, if you will."

Now, I'll confess, Jeff, I'm the least sympathetic to this last argument because of what I said earlier, I don't think the US news rankings do a good job of helping someone find the right fit for them nor finding good value in a law school with something that's likely to pay off.

And as I've written in a lot of places, there are a lot of students going to law schools, they get terrible value for their time and money and would be better off not having gone at all. So the system in place just isn't working in my view. But more broadly, Jeff, I guess the reasons that the dean at Yale, for example, gave a round opting out around the importance of public service and so on, to be totally honest, they felt a little hollow to me and not attacking the right reasons why these rankings have big problems.

So I guess my bottom line is I'm glad that they're out of the rankings or won't be cooperating. They still might get included, but I thought the rationale they gave for opting out was a little empty and a little cynical at best. But I want to go back to you because as I said, you are actually the resident expert on rankings, not me.

And for those who don't remember, it's because you got your start as a college intern at US News working on the rankings in the mid 1990s. So it's not all your fault, but you have insight into this. And the bigger question, I think us Yales are wondering, given we rarely make it to number one in those rankings in the undergrad, despite clearly having the superior college experience. And if you can't tell, I'm kidding, for listeners or at least kind of kidding based on my earlier comments. Well, anyway.

But the bigger question I think Jeff is, especially given the standardized test score conversation that we just had is this, which is what might it take for this movement that's starting at the law schools to filter down to the undergraduate rankings, which are really the granddaddy of them all and what US News is really known for.

Jeff Selingo:

And on that front, Michael, call me skeptical. I think there are a few key differences between the undergraduate rankings and the law school rankings or any other graduate school rankings.

First, there are so many more colleges and universities in the United States than there are law schools. So the rankings really provide some sort of organization to the ecosystem for consumers who really, at the age of 18 don't know what they want or need. Now, of course, the rankings also confirm what we already know. This is often called the face validity of the rankings. In other words, no one will buy the US News and World Report rankings if Yale and Harvard and Stanford and Princeton aren't somewhere in the top 10 at least, or maybe top 20. So again, it really kind of provides this organization of an ecosystem.

Second, I think that marketing and institutional prestige are really around the undergraduate rankings. People think Harvard and Yale and Princeton are good because of their undergraduate programs, not because of particular graduate programs. So as a result, they're just much more entrenched. The undergraduate rankings I think are just much more entrenched in our psyche around higher education.

And then finally, what is clear in these decisions when anybody would ask somebody at the undergraduate level, what do you think about your law school leaving the rankings? Is that the law schools really operate as silos, and they made these decisions, it seems largely on their own. Obviously they told the president, but they can make these decisions largely on their own because of the way many of these law schools operate.

And law schools also have this thing called the bar exam, which they're ultimately judged on. So I think that them leaving the rankings, if suddenly their bar passage rate went down, you would see they would probably be concerned and do something about that. But ultimately, I think people judge law schools on their bar passage rates and other things that the rankings, you don't need the rankings to determine.

Michael Horn:

No, those are good points, Jeff, and obviously ultimately that is a mastery standard, if you will. So that's all to the good, I suppose. And we might know more this spring as college leaders start to fill out the US news survey, and perhaps they will say, "That's it," but we'll hold our breath.

Obviously, the affirmative action piece of this also impacts them, not just the law school, certainly. But Jeff, I want to leave that conversation behind and transition to the last topic that we have on today's show, which is I think a quick take before we head out, which revolves around Christina Johnson, who's been the president of the Ohio State, announcing that she's stepping down at the end of the academic year after only three years on the job.

And Jeff, 2022 has not been kind to the presidents of the universities in the Big 10 conference, seven of 14 presidents in the conference have resigned or been fired this year. That's 50%. I recently wrote a white paper now about how leaders can better navigate managing change on their campuses that we can link to in the show notes. But I really want to know, as someone on the pulse of, you have the pulse of leaders in higher ed, you help train them in many cases. Jeff, what is going on here?

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, it's not clear, first of all, why Johnson resigned. There's a lot of different stories out there, but Ohio State, like much of the Big 10, is a place in pretty good shape, really good shape, I might argue. These institutions aren't Cazenovia College in New York state, which announced last week that's closing at the end of the year. And while the succession drama at Disney might be getting all the ink these days, too many university presidents aren't even making it as long as Bob two did at Disney. They're flaming out, they're at war with their faculty and also with their boards.

And this comes at a time when better leadership is needed more than ever, as we've often talked about on the show. Enrollment is following and the public is increasingly questioning the value of the product. When presidents of these big universities like Christina Johnson turn over every few years, in my mind, there's a critical loss of momentum.

Unlike in parts of the corporate sector, higher ed isn't really deliberate about grooming its future leaders. It just assumes that someone who's on the faculty who becomes department chair and then dean and then provost is just ready for the presidency. And I've seen time and time again in the senior leaders who have come through the ASU Georgetown University Academy for innovative higher education leadership, which I've helped run for the last nine years. And these people in this program are often usually a step or two away from that top job.

When you ask them about their top leaders, they tell me constantly they think they lack that emotional intelligence, that EQ needed to manage what are essentially many cities with a similar diversity of stakeholders, from alumni to faculty to students and parents. And so we're constantly interrogating in that program, what are the skills needed to succeed in the college presidency today? And the presidents that I've seen succeed in my 25 years of covering this industry, either they're risk takers and visionaries, but as we've often heard, even on the presidents we've had on the show, they're disciplined enough to focus on their mission and institutional strengths. They're passionate about educational access for students. They're also data driven. But most of all, and again, you hear are the ones that we have on the show, they're really strategic communicators with an art for storytelling.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, Jeff, indeed. And we've seen just how presidents we've had on this podcast over the years, and many of them veterans, how the tenure of their leadership was critical to what the institution has achieved. And that tenure has often been measured in decades for those who have been most transformational. But speaking of time, that's actually all the time we have on this episode of Future U. So thank you for joining us, and we'll see you next time.

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