Published on 2016/04/18
The EvoLLLution | On (Not) Playing the Rankings Game
A rankings system that actually helps students understand whether and how an institution is suited to meet their needs would create the level of consumer consciousness the higher education industry desperately needs while also keeping institutions honest insofar as how well they serve their students.

In recent years, dismantling the methodologies and denouncing the impacts of college rankings has become something of a national pastime among higher education pundits. The annual list developed by the U.S. News & World Report is a popular target. Who could mistake the tone of a 2013 Atlantic article titled “Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings”?

I’ve lent my voice to this chorus as well in the past, and for good reason: The stakes for higher education today are dauntingly high, while the value of rankings is embarrassingly low.

In an era of unprecedented challenges for our institutions of higher education—including fiscal uncertainties, evolving demographics, changing technologies, and public questions about the value of a college degree—it is a waste of precious energy to think about rankings, and morally irresponsible to actively explore how to nudge our institutions up a notch or two.

Instead of worrying about What happens when colleges focus on rankings, I want to recast the question: What should colleges focus on, period?

I submit that all colleges—regardless of location or size—should be focused on one essential aim: advancing our respective institutional missions to better serve our increasingly diverse students.

At California State University, Fullerton, one of the largest and most diverse public comprehensive universities in the country, we have developed one model for this mission-driven, student-centered approach. In the more than three years I have served this institution as provost, I have yet to sit in a meeting where we devise tactics to climb the rankings. Our time, money and resources are focused instead on advancing the goals of our strategic plan, which include expanding and enhancing our advising services so we can better support our diverse students; investing in the high-impact practices that have been shown to disproportionately benefit underrepresented students; recruiting and retaining a high-quality and diverse faculty and staff in order to become a model for inclusion and engagement; and securing revenue sources that will allow us to invest in the success of our university, our students and our communities.

We must remember that for prospective students, choosing a school based on rankings is a choice of privilege. The majority of our nation’s college-bound students are constrained by academic preparation, geography, finances or any combination of these factors. A college degree may be one of the biggest investments they and their families make. As such, when comparing colleges, they should have access to clear and transparent answers to the questions that will help them truly understand whether and how a given institution is best suited to support their specific needs and circumstances.

Questions such as: With the money available to me, my academic preparation level, and my socioeconomic background, which institutions will offer me the best opportunity to:

  • Be admitted?
  • Receive support services relevant to my experiences, including financial aid?
  • Persist and succeed?
  • Complete my degree requirements a timely manner?
  • Graduate with the least amount of debt?
  • Get a job?
  • Earn a living wage?
  • Become an engaged, productive and happy citizen?

A tool that illuminates these questions for prospective students would also help institutions understand how well we are serving the students we already have, not just how attractive we look to the next incoming class (or potential donors). A transparent, accurate and comprehensive tool with this goal in mind would help us motivate our internal constituents to drive continuous advancement, and help policymakers and practitioners identify areas for improvement.

Note my use of the word tool. When it comes to evaluating institutions from the perspective of a prospective student, tools are better than ratings, and ratings are better than rankings. Instead of focusing our energy on critiquing the latter, we need to actively encourage the development of the first—specifically, tools that provide actionable information aligned with families’ aspirations and their realities. One such tool already exists: the first version of the embattled U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. While the data are imperfect, and further work is needed, the intent is admirable.

But we can all do more:

Institutions can focus on our mission and our students above all else. At Cal State Fullerton, when we receive a top ranking in a category that aligns with our values—such as being first in California and fifth in the nation in the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded to underrepresented students—we view it as affirmation of our dedication and commitment. If we’re left off a list? We continue to press forward, attending to the activities and initiatives that lead us into the future, rather than being distracted by rankings whose methodologies are weighted toward the past.

Rankings providers can ensure that their methodologies and metrics are forward-thinking and focused on the issues of greatest urgency and greatest consequence to the changing demographics of our nation’s diverse student body. They should not only address the questions families are really asking about colleges but also shape those questions to help families make sound decisions. I am heartened that widespread dissatisfaction with entrenched rankings such as U.S. News & World Report has encouraged a host of new players to enter the game, touting promises of more advanced methodologies and more equitable comparisons. Many of these newcomers—such as Money magazine, the Washington Monthly, and the Economist—provide insights that are increasingly attuned to serving prospective students and their families, with a greater interest in measuring factors such as affordability, graduation rates, alumni salaries, “bang for the buck,” and contributions to the public good.

Innovators can adopt the challenge of creating tools that can provide meaningful data to not only help prospective students navigate the world of higher education but also foster unflinching self-reflection among institutions so that we can better serve our students, and in doing so, live up to our responsibility as a public trust.

Indeed, for the U.S. to once again lead the world in educational attainment and secure economic competitiveness in a global market, we must all focus our energy on the hard work of expanding opportunity and sustaining social mobility. Anything else is a disservice to those we purport to serve: our students, our communities and our country.

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