Published on 2016/04/25
The EvoLLLution | We Must Find New Ways To Determine Institutional Value
As they stand today, the ranking systems provide, at best, an inaccurate view of institutional performance and at-worst serve to confuse student choice based on a limited number of highly specific factors.

Today’s students have more choices than ever before and, while it gives them a great deal of power as customers, it can also make the college selection process immensely confusing. Popular ranking systems are supposed to serve as a valuable tool to help students find the institution that’s best for them, but these rankings often obfuscate the process more than they clarify. In this interview, Richard DeMillo explores the most significant issues with the currently available ratings and rankings systems, and shares his thoughts on the factors that need to be considered if developing a truly representative, student-centric ranking system.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What impact do institutional rankings—like those published by US World and News—have on the higher education marketplace?

Richard DeMillo (RD): The idea of ranking institutions skews every aspect of the academic marketplace. A ranking, by its very nature, leads readers to believe that a 10th ranked institutions is better than one that is ranked 11th. Students and families make decisions based on numbers like these, and the underlying premise is flawed.

There are so many factors that determine success later in life and focusing attention on a ranking ignores a student’s aspirations, choice of major, and classroom performance—all of which are more important than the ranking of the institution. Colleges know that families take rankings seriously and that drives questionable behavior on the part of the institution.

Selectivity, for example, plays a key role in rankings, but the evidence is that selectivity plays almost no role in the quality of the educational experience. The result is that schools systematically exclude students who would do well and are interested in attending because including them would negatively impact rankings.

Evo: What kinds of factors are highlighted by these ranking systems to define the best and worst institutions?

RD: There is remarkably little variation in the top ranked institutions, but those schools also tend to be the ones whose brands have become associated with elite, high-quality education. The top 20 global universities include the same 10 American colleges that are highly ranked by the US News and World Rankings and others. These are the schools with elite brands; the rankings play no role in that.

At the other end of the scale, the notion that there are schools that are “worse” because they are not highly ranked is also suspect. An inclusive public university is almost guaranteed a low ranking. Selectivity, faculty-student ratios, and subjective reputations are important to achieving a high ranking, although educational value is largely unrelated to these factors.

Evo: How well do these factors mirror the expectations and demands of today’s students—especially given the number of traditional-age and adult learners who are working and focused on outcomes?

RD: I am not a believer in the story that ties rankings to value. That is primarily due to the huge disconnect between outcomes and the factors that influence rankings.

Evo: What kinds of factors should be taken into account when creating a ranking system that speaks to the needs of today’s learners?

RD: I am philosophically opposed to assigning single figures of merit to quality, but if you were serious about a rating system that would single out certain institutions for special attention, you might start with outcome-based measurements.

For example, I would like to know whether an institution does well for students that are “like me.” That’s not captured by existing rankings. Another thing not captured by today’s popular rankings is long-term career success or lifetime earnings potential. I would like to know about a school’s successes, and aside from its obvious successes, I would also like to know what happens to most of its graduates. It would also be useful to know how important an institution is to its city, state or region. There are dozens of factors like these that are genuine indicators of institutional quality, and any future rating systems should take them into account.

Evo: What will it take for such a ranking system to become mainstream?

RD: Proliferation of new institutions and programs will eventually cause real problems for existing one-dimensional ranking systems. You can already see the effects of return-on-investment rankings like the one published annually by Payscale.com on the industry. I expect those systems will move very quickly into the mainstream.

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Key Takeaways

  • The concept of a ranking system that is tied to quality is fundamentally flawed as different institutions pursue different goals and serve different missions.
  • The popular ranking systems today tend to reward institutions for prestige and exclusivity while ignoring some of the critical factors that define quality for today’s student-customer.
  • Ultimately, ratings systems need to evolve to encapsulate the elements today’s students are looking for from their institutions including long-term earning potential and impact on the community.