Student-Centricity in Rankings Would Be A Catalyst for ChangeJames Burns | President, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota
In any rating or ranking systems there are benefits and challenges, a truth that carries when introducing changes to such a system.
It would seem that a ranking system focusing more on the student experience and student appreciation for the college experience would benefit colleges. In so doing, it would allow students to concentrate on building the set of skills relevant to their interests and that are presumably also relevant to what the student believes they need to be successful. Coupling this with a clear understanding of what employers want in terms of job related skills would seem to offer students the best of both worlds: the college experience while also gaining the preparation for the job market after college. It’s important to note that, while education is not solely about the pragmatic concern of being employed or employable after college, it is an important consideration for students—especially for non-traditional students who now make up more than 75 percent of all undergraduates.
Student-centric ratings would push colleges and administrators out of the zone of what they believe students need into a broader and more inclusive discussion of what students themselves consider measures of success. It would also allow employers the opportunity to identify and influence the way students actually understand and prepare for what awaits them in the job market. Not solely focusing on external rankings of graduation and retention rates, selectivity and reputation could allow greater weight to be placed upon what actually prepares students to be successful in life after college and engaging them in the discussion of what it means to be competent in one’s field of interest. All of which does not have to negate the importance of liberal arts, critical thinking and an exposure to abroad array of subjects. It just adds perspective. If one of the key goals of providing an education is to change the minds and lives of students—and not simply impart knowledge—then receiving their input and their evaluation of what makes the experience valuable would be critical to how a school is ranked.
It is not too difficult to appreciate how such an approach would allow students—as the “consumers of education”—to become more aware of both the benefits inherent in such a ranking method (that they can actually participate in) as well as the challenges in terms of determining what student success really looks like. It would also bring students into the discussion of something they may already be aware of even if in a subconscious way, i.e., that the bifurcation of their experience (pre- and post-college) in many ways forms the basis of the distinction between traditional and non-traditional goals of education. Where non-traditional students appreciate immediately the need for college life to be translational, traditional students may only be distantly aware of this—though as graduation becomes more proximal so does the clarity around what they need from education and what they want.
A student-centered ranking system, one that’s not so aligned with the external features of what administrators and experts think make for a good college experience but instead focuses on what students actually value and come to appreciate from being in the experience, would likely lead to more organic change. This would then align with the transformative nature of education in that it actually reflects and represents what makes a college distinctive from the student perspective. It could also allow for a weighted ranking based upon year in school, e.g., freshman versus juniors and seniors as well as recent graduates.
Another area that would change with a more student-centric approach and ranking would be how they understand their school’s focus on technology and the way they, as consumers, can be exposed to it and make use of it. Faculty and administrators would need to become more savvy and welcoming of both the benefits of technology (not solely focus on its limits) and the burdens of staying engaged and authentic in the conversation. This also means colleges would need to create a more critical way of analyzing and evaluating which faculty utilize this medium most effectively and are most sophisticated in its application while tying this to faculty evaluation. Focus on student-centered rankings would also call into focus teaching ability and application of skills in general.
Another area that ties into this discussion is the way colleges approach and understand the financial burdens students face both as they move through the college experience and after graduation. This would mean being more effective at addressing these concerns and the weight of the experience of debt while also creating space to be more reflective about the role of finances in higher education. At the same time it would also necessitate bringing students into a realistic discussion of the “why” of tuition costs and the cost-benefit analysis of what it means for them to have all the experiences they believe they need from the college would be critical. In addition, taking into account the varied needs and wants of both traditional and non-traditional students would reflect differently in the finances and how students would rank these areas. Getting students involved in a discussion of how finances are impacted by what they expect from the college experience could also provide them with an appreciation for how this ties into accessibility, especially for those who are less well-off. Student-centered success and rankings could then move away from who has the most luxurious environment to who has an appreciation for and values community and justice.
All of this would then likely change how the recruitment and application process occurs as well as admissions. The metrics that make up school selectivity would certainly change as would access to schools. There would likely be less of a focus on what seems to many applicants to be a way to keep students out and more a focus on inclusion and ways to engage the complexity of the student experience, as well as how to create access for a diversity of students. It would be more likely that schools would focus on fit rather than solely on the variables that currently relate to selectivity.
Interestingly much of this bears out in recent polls of college students. For example, when freshman were asked what they look for in the right college they report focusing on whether the “college has a very good academic reputation” (63.8 percent), whether the “college’s graduates get good jobs” (55.9 percent), whether they were “offered financial assistance” (45.6 percent) and the “cost of attending this college” (43.3 percent). In addition, how they felt about their visit to this campus (41.8 percent), and whether the “college has a good reputation for its social activities” (40.2 percent) were also very important (Pryor, et al., 2012). In addition, the importance of student-centric variables as related to engagement at work after college was born out in a recent Gallup Poll survey. This study focused on what the researchers termed the “Big Six”: 1) A professor who made them excited to learn; 2) A professor who cared about them as individuals; 3) A mentor who pushed students to reach their goals; 4) Working on a long-term project; 5) Completing a job or internship related to classroom lessons; 6) Being engaged in extracurricular activities and groups. (Busteed & Seymour, 2015)
Whereas when we review the most significant variables for a college as ranked by an external rating system, student-centered variables become less critical. The focus is more institutional and impersonal in nature. The rankings prioritize “undergraduate academic reputation” (22.5 percent), “faculty resources (20 percent)” and “student selectivity for entering class” (12.5 percent). The sole variable that seems to have a bit more of a personal aspect is the colleges’ graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent) (Morse & Brooks, 2015). The divergence in thought becomes readily apparent between what students say they want and what external evaluators think makes for a good college.
There are challenges of course in a more student-centered ranking system including that students don’t always know what they want in a college experience or from the field they may be interested in. We know that 80 percent of college students change their major, on average, three times or more during the course of their college experience (Simon, 2012).
In addition, in reviewing any student survey or evaluation we always need to keep in mind overall response rates as well as selection and measurement bias. These concerns would certainly play a part in understanding the impact of making any changes based upon such results. In addition, students are often pressured and stressed in the immediate term. Many of them are trying, often for the first time, to balance considerable internal and external pressures resulting in a lack of foresight and ability to anticipate shifts or changes in both education and the job market. By necessity many often become unduly focused on the immediate.
Finally, a cost analysis of any new student-centered approach would need to occur before moving too quickly toward such initiatives. Perhaps a unique and significant step forward would be to attempt to incorporate a blend of both ranking/rating systems. This could allow for a more realistic evaluation of colleges.
Author Perspective: Administrator