The Good and Bad of Rankings: More Emphasis on Qualitative Review is Critical
I remember what my friend’s dad said just a few weeks before I went off to college as an 18-year-old. “That’s a third-tier school why would you want to go there?”
He was referring to college rankings, something I hadn’t concerned myself with when viewing college view books and talking with peers. I was more interested in what I could learn outside the classroom—what the other students were like and where the college was located—than I was in the academic ranking of the school. But my friend’s dad was a prominent and successful business leader in our community, so later that week I ventured into our public library and found the college rankings. And sure enough, my public university destination was ranked in the third tier down.
Was my upcoming college experience going to a third-tier experience, or even a failure?
Do rankings matter to students? Isn’t the experience a student has in college more about what they put into their education, the resources available to them and the networks they build more than it is about a ranking? We’ve heard the stories about rankings and how schools manipulate numbers to improve their rankings, so is there even credibility to rankings? Perhaps the quantitative data should be overlooked to focus on the qualitative data.
It is important to be able to compare HEIs against one another, especially given the student’s emerging customer status, the price of higher education and the array of choices, but quantitative rankings don’t always tell the story.
The Good and Bad of Rankings
There is a good side to college rankings, namely that rankings can provide a measure of student (customer) protection in an often-confusing marketplace. These rankings also can create an impetus for competition among HEIs that pushes institutions to strive for increased graduation rates, gainful employment of graduates, financial aid incentives, and external research dollars. The rankings force HEIs to constantly innovate and adapt to the changing marketplace, albeit slowly at times.
The down side to college rankings is more obvious: rankings don’t tell the whole story. Metrics aren’t necessarily representative of what the institution does, especially in the student life and professional networking sense.
Worse still, the metrics don’t often capture the audience the HEI serves. See a recent article in the Washington Post for an example outlining why the University of Maryland University College doesn’t participate in the rankings, and elaborating on how they serve their unique student audience.
The Importance of Qualitative Review
I chose my undergraduate college based upon completely non-academic, qualitative data gleaned from trusted sources: friends. The city was beautiful, the dorms were nice, the weather was four seasons of fun, and the tuition fit in the family budget. Right or wrong, the college rankings didn’t even enter into my equation when looking for a school.
These anecdotal reviews from others, including “a friend who had a cousin that knew someone that went there and thought it was the best experience ever” carried more weight than a small table in a national magazine I’d barely heard of anyway. Years later and with the internet, we have websites to review that discuss options more than just rankings, including reviews from students, faculty and staff, budget documents, and news reports. The Cleary Act has made campus safety a publically reportable metric, in addition to gainful employment statistics from graduates. Rankings can continue to serve a purpose of providing student-consumers a sense of how the institution operates and how it serves students.
Yet what if more weight were placed on the qualitative rankings for schools? It appears to me this is a direction the rankings are slowly moving towards—that of a measurement of the historical quantitative metrics.
Student life and alumni engagement are both metrics that could be measured to help gauge the apparent “success and happiness” of students while at the HEI.
Another aspect that should be taken into account in the rankings is the offerings of non-credit and certificate programs. After all, in today’s knowledge-based labor market, access to focused skills development is a key service feature of institutions to engage and support the local workforce.
Having these aspects measured can help provide prospective students the information needed to make an informed decision about their education – and provide more fodder for institutional marketing teams to tout in view books and websites.
Author Perspective: Administrator