McDaniel not liberal arts?

By Mike Habegger, Co-Editor in Chief

In recent weeks, there has been controversy surrounding the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classification of McDaniel College as a “Master’s College/University” and its subsequent listing in the 2008 U.S. News and World Report “America’s Best Colleges” rankings as a regional Master’s University.

The issue was discussed at recent faculty and board of trustees meetings and has aroused concern among a small number of current students. The worries are associated with the relative prestige of McDaniel that stems from the annual rankings.

Concerned faculty and students are upset they were not alerted to the situation earlier and that, as a result, the institution may be miscast as a school with a limited scope of educational programs, which is especially important to prospective students and faculty that place merit on the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

“If I apply to graduate school, I don’t want those schools finding out that I just received my bachelor’s from a poorly-ranked master’s granting institution,” said Michael Young, a senior chemistry major. “It’s also a big deal because such a classification has the potential to be self-fulfilling.”

President Joan Develin Coley maintained that the classification “would make absolutely no difference in the education of any undergraduate at McDaniel.” The college will continue to advertise and conduct itself as a liberal arts college.

The Carnegie Foundation constructs its yearly classifications based on a report submitted by the institution to the government called “The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System,” known popularly by its acronym, IPEDS. In 2005, the Carnegie Foundation revised its original classification system and called it the “Basic classification.” The purpose of the classifications is to provide objective information for those interested in “conducting research on higher education” so as to make the diversity of institutions in the United States “roughly comparable.”

According to the “Basic” Carnegie classification, McDaniel is a “larger Master’s College/University.” This is not necessarily in conflict with other identifying characteristics listed, such as it being a majority undergraduate, highly residential, four-year school. It is classified this way because it grants 50 or more master’s degrees each year.

The Carnegie classifications are very complicated, such that most current and prospective students and potential employers will not glean anything of use from them. That aside, the classification is given relevance when third-party rankings of institutions apply it, such as the service provided by U.S. News & World Report which has been ranking American colleges and universities since 1983. The rankings have become a source of pride for faculty. They are also a starting point for some prospective students who begin their college search looking at a list of similar institutions to decide where to apply.

“I think the idea that people–including graduate schools, employers, etc—don’t read U.S. News is preposterous,” said Young, responding to a comment made by a top administrator during a recent faculty meeting that U.S. News is “just a magazine.”

“In my opinion, a degree from a regional master’s granting institution at an undergraduate level–not to be offensive–says that you care less about the quality of the education you are getting and more about the degree itself,” said Young. “This affects how you represent yourself as an individual in respect to the college education you received.”

According to their website, U.S. News & World Report “collapses nine of the Carnegie categories into four main groupings.” Indeed, the rankings are reflective of a twice watered-down classification of otherwise very unique and complex institutions—differences that are adequately represented in the full Carnegie classification.

“They [U.S. News & World Report] use Carnegie Classifications in a way that they were never intended to be used,” said Coley.

The 2008 U.S. News rankings list McDaniel at number 22 as a Master’s University in the “North”, which is fairly high—much higher than it was ranked in the liberal arts category, but considering the nature of the schools listed higher, it may be a concern. For example, Hood, Loyola, Scranton, and Alfred are listed ahead of McDaniel, none of which exhibit a firm commitment to the liberal arts ideal.

In June, a majority of members of the Annapolis Group, an organization of the leading national independent liberal arts colleges, agreed not to participate in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, opting instead to develop “an alternative common format that presents information about their colleges for student and their families to use in the college search process” to be available on the web. A plausible reason for this was a fear that they would be reclassified in the U.S. News rankings based on the redefining of Carnegie’s “Basic” classification system.

Most of the members of the group have managed to retain their standing as “liberal arts institutions” in the U.S. News rankings, while McDaniel has not. This, coupled with the fact that, for example, Gettysburg is classified as a “larger Master’s College/University” by Carnegie and yet is listed in the U.S. News rankings as a “Liberal Arts College” suggests that there is limited correlation between the rankings and the Carnegie classification system.

However, U.S. News appears to classify schools in a clear-cut manner. The publication claims that the principle stipulation for being defined as a liberal arts college is that it “emphasize undergraduate education and award at least 50 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts”—a condition that McDaniel would appear to meet.

McDaniel’s classification is an exception to a largely arbitrary rule.

Some of McDaniel’s competitors are listed by Carnegie as “Baccalaureate Colleges” even though they exhibit some graduate and undergraduate program coexistence. Some are listed as “Larger Master’s Colleges and Universities” even with no graduate coexistence in undergraduate programs. McDaniel is listed as a majority undergraduate program with some graduate program coexistence, and yet, it is the only school to miss out on being included in U.S. News’ liberal arts ranking list.

“In some sense both categories [liberal arts and master’s college] are right for us. We simply feel that the one that suits us better and the one that is closer to our core identity is liberal arts college,” said Coley. “We simply want to be in the category that best describes us historically and currently most accurately…I don’t think that according to the criteria McDaniel is misclassified.”

Coley spoke of a reclassification compromise between the Annapolis Group and Carnegie to better reflect the character of some of the schools. It has also been said that an agreement with the Maryland Higher Education Committee (MHEC) may result in a different categorization of McDaniel in the Carnegie classification system, and by extension, the U.S. News & World Report rankings. The school is working internally to remedy the situation.

Barring the success of these plans of action, McDaniel is likely to remain on the Master’s Universities ranking list at U.S. News & World Report indefinitely.