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Outcomes Over Exclusivity: The Ideal Rankings For Today’s Students

The EvoLLLution | Outcomes Over Exclusivity: The Ideal Rankings For Today’s Students
While the most popular ranking systems look at factors that speak to institutional quality, questions around outcomes are the ones that are most important to today’s students.

Higher education rankings have become a feature of the postsecondary space. Measuring all kinds of different aspects of institutional performance, there are rankings available that speak to a wide variety of questions. However, the one question that’s most important to today’s students—and the one for which information is least available—is outcomes. In this interview, Lucie Lapovsky discusses the true value of the most popular ranking systems and shares her thoughts on the factors that would make a ranking system truly useful for today’s students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the value of having ranking systems for higher education?

Lucie Lapovsky (LL): Ranking systems help students group institutions in buckets that let them look at the areas and priorities that interest them most.

There’s all kinds of rankings—there’s best price, best value, best academically, et cetera—but the one that is most used is the U.S. News rankings, which is primarily focused on academics and reputation. Those two areas are not necessarily synonymous but a lot that people assume the institutions with the best reputations are the best academically.

A lot of people want to go to a top university or a top liberal arts college and they go to US News’ list of the top 25 or the top 50. Ranking systems let students focus their college search very quickly and lets them see if they can even qualify for the institutions at the top of those lists.

Evo: How effective are the currently used ranking systems, like the one published by US News, at highlighting institutional factors that count for today’s students?

LL: I don’t think the areas tracked by rankings providers are necessarily correlated to what today’s students need. US News specifically is focused on reputation and sorting first-year students on their high school ability. If you want to go to a school that has the students viewed as the best and the brightest in high school—based on grade point average, SAT scores and other traditional measures—then the US News rankings will give you a fairly easy way to identify those schools.

If you want to go to a school that can maximize your chances for success, however you define that—whether that’s simply graduating, or graduating and getting a good job, or graduating and enrolling in an advanced degree program—it’s hard to identify what schools will be best for you. There is no particularly good ranking system in place that shares that information.

In fairness, there tends to be correlation between US News’ top-ranked schools and student outcomes, but the question that keeps coming up is whether this correlation is due to the value provided by the schools themselves or because of the networks those schools have and the reputation that goes with them. It’s hard to say because we have very poor outcome data.

Evo: How valuable is it for a non-traditional student to look at a ranking system that tells them the high school ranking of their peers or the level of exclusivity that an institution can provide?

LL: It’s not valuable at all for non-traditional students to look at rankings that measure schools based on factors like exclusivity or high-school performance of first-year students.

Many programs for non-traditional students are separate from the full-time undergraduate programs geared toward 18- to 22-year-olds, which capture the attention and focus of most of the rankings.

Just like anyone else, non-traditional students like the bragging rights that go with saying they went to a prestigious or highly ranked university. But what should matter is that many of the programs that prestigious universities run for the non-traditional students—which operate on evenings, weekends and/or online—are taught by an entirely different group faculty and often have an entirely different curriculum that is not assessed in the same way as those full-time undergraduate curricula. As such, it’s only really helpful if they want to have the association with the university’s name brand reputation. From an employer’s standpoint, they typically use the name of the institution as a screening mechanism and, to employers, if you went to one of the top universities in the country it means at least you’re probably quite an intelligent person. This name acts as a sort of pre-defined quality test; they trust a well ranked school more than a school they don’t necessarily know, regardless of actual quality.

Evo: What are some of the factors that you would include in a ranking system designed to be more student-centric?

LL: As an economist looking at the higher education industry, you see a lot of people framing the airline industry as analogous with higher education, especially when it comes to discounting. However, the one difference is the airlines don’t care who’s filling their seats; they just care about getting the price. The college, on the other hand, cares deeply about who’s in their seats because one of their reputation builders is the types of students they have, whether they can brag about things like grade point average, numbers of student leaders and diversity of students. Characteristics like this are all important for students in making a choice about to what kind of school they want to attend.

There are a few key areas that I think are really important across the board. For example, percentage of the faculty with a terminal degree; percentage of full-time faculty; percentage of students who graduate in four years or less; student satisfaction after graduation; perceptions of alumni five or ten years after graduation; and perspectives from graduates on the institution’s ability to prepare them to be productive working citizens.

Issues like that are more important than how many resources an institution has at its disposal. For one, these factors directly apply to the education.

Evo: With so many different ranking systems in existence that track and measure so many different factors, do you think there will ever emerge a single ranking system that will amalgamate the findings of all these unique publications?

LL: Well I think a sort of Kayak of rankings—a single site or publication that brings together the findings of all the different sources, much like for the travel industry—could one day emerge.

This way, any individual could develop their own rankings highlighting what’s important to them. If you had access to a data warehouse, you could select the factors and variables that are most important to you and then get a custom ranking that speaks specifically to your individual demands.

Evo: What are the most significant roadblocks standing in the way of the creation of a more student-centric approach to institutional rankings?

LL: On the outcome side there’s just not enough good data available. We are starting to collect better data but there’s still a way to go. In addition, the jury is still out on how often students actually use rankings when making a college selection and, as a result, how much effort should go into improving the rankings. Three quarters of students go to school within 50 miles of their house, and if you’re talking about non-traditional students it’s probably more like 95 percent. So the question is, what are they really looking at? Once we know that, we need to make sure those sources have the information prospective students really need.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of ranking systems and the opportunity to shape those rankings systems to really meet the expectations and needs of students?

LL: Students should want to know what school will they thrive at and this question requires a lot more attention.

Another question that requires more attention is how students can get the information they need to justify trade-offs between price and quality in the higher education sector. Just like when you’re out to buy a car or any product, you will have a range of prices and a range of what you perceive as qualities. You will have consumer report rankings on the quality of the car in terms of whatever variables you need, like reliability, gas mileage, whatever is important to you. Consumers looking to buy a car—new or used—have pretty perfect knowledge on price and then they can make a conscious trade off between price and quality.

When you’re going to college, one of the biggest problems is you have terrible information about price, in terms of what net price you’re actually going to pay, and you have little information about outcomes. You have good information about input and some pretty good information about retention, but that’s it.

The continuing and non-traditional education spaces specifically require better information availability. For a prospective continuing education student, there’s probably very little information on the quality of programs available and whatever information exists is very hard to get. I don’t see anything published on how many credit hours continuing education students earn, where they have come from in terms of other schools, what their age distribution is, what their classes are going to look like and who’s going to be teaching them. None of that information is well provided.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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