University Rankings: Valuable Sources for Information or Impediments to Innovation?Michael Lanford | Provost Fellow at the Pullias Center for Higher Education, University of Southern California
Thanks to recent exponential growth in technology and networking, valuable information about every college and university across the globe is readily accessible through our computers, our tablets, and even our phones. When I was in high school during the early 1990’s, however, no single location in my hometown of Augusta, GA, divulged as many treasures about higher education as the local bookstore. A myriad of publications such as the Fiske Guide to College and the Yale Insider Guide to Colleges offered portraits of institutions across the United States that I barely knew existed, much less had the opportunity to visit in person. When I needed to understand the finer points of preparing for the SAT, filling out a FAFSA form, or preparing an eye-catching personal statement, the bookstore was again a lifesaver, helping me navigate the complicated American college admissions process.
Perhaps no publication was as eagerly anticipated as the U.S. News and World Report publication of its annual college rankings issue. One day in the September of my senior year, I remember making a special trip to the nearest bookstore so that I could rummage through their newly printed rankings. Since I grew up in a region of the country with few institutions that ranked among the top 100 nationally, I placed great value in the tiers and metrics developed by the rankings. The U.S. News rankings not only made me aware of the entrenched hierarchies within higher education, but they helped me assess which institutions might welcome my application and talents, which institutions might offer scholarship aid, and which institutions might be improbable given my academic credentials.
For this reason, I have a deep appreciation (if not a certain romantic attachment) for the allure of traditional university rankings. I imagine that many other high school students across the country have similar stories as mine, utilizing publications like the U.S. News rankings as a much-needed source of clarity for a complex, highly diverse sector that defies easy explanation. At that time, the rankings filled a void generated by the limited resources of my high school. They helped me become much more knowledgeable about higher education, leading me to consider institutions beyond my local community college. They even encouraged me to focus more on my high school coursework and my test scores, as I eagerly anticipated what life might be like as a college student at a top-ranked institution.
At this point, I would like to fast-forward twenty years—to my most recent job (before re-entering graduate school) as a writing center coordinator at a state community college.
On a summer day in 2013, the president of my college surprised our community of 30,000 students and faculty with an impromptu campus-wide celebration. During a speech in which employee attendance was mandatory, big news was announced: our college had the #2 online bachelor’s program in the country, according to 2013 rankings from a prominent website. Within days, banners were unfurled across campus, roadside advertisements were constructed along every 20 miles of highway between the two nearest major metropolitan areas, and a television spot was quickly filmed.
This announcement surprised me since I had heard nothing but complaints about the online coursework from students. The online syllabi I had seen were lacking in curricular depth, and students were frequently confused by assignments. Often, students would schedule appointments with writing center tutors just to discern what was expected in their online classes. Moreover, assessment uniformly consisted of multiple choice exams for which students regularly traded answers from copied test banks.
Thus, I looked up the methodology for this specific ranking. High percentages of the methodology were devoted to completely meaningless factors, such as whether or not students signed an ethics statement or an anti-plagiarism policy existed. Other factors, such as how much feedback students received from instructors, seemed completely impossible to accurately gauge. In other words, the whole rankings exercise seemed rather pointless, except for the publicity it garnered the rankings website and the luster of prestige it conferred upon institutions like mine that were lucky enough to accidentally have the right measurables.
I have juxtaposed these two stories to demonstrate how I am of two minds when it comes to university ranking systems. When I think of the potential benefits of college rankings from a student-centered perspective, I think of their capacity to fill an information vacuum for students who live outside major urban centers, as well as their potential to inspire individuals who might not otherwise look beyond their communities for higher education.
But I think it is also essential to recognize that we live in an increasingly rankings-obsessed culture. One can find rankings for nearly everything, including the countries with the most efficient health care and the U.S. states most and least likely to survive a zombie apocalypse. Sometimes the rankings have informative statistics; sometimes they are the creation of a single individual’s wild imagination. At best, they are imperfect blunt measurements that offer superficial clarity about complex phenomena.
For this reason, students should understand that their college decision is best left to informed judgment and a thoughtful consideration of individually meaningful factors. They should seek the advice of several people who can offer a variety of perspectives. They should consider which situation may provide the greatest sense of fulfillment and happiness.
Institutions, in turn, need to carefully consider their relationship with university ranking systems. When an institution lends too much credence to external assessments (like rankings), it forfeits its ability to define how it will improve programs, introduce new curricula, and test classroom innovations. Rankings-obsessed institutions are liable to consolidate scarce resources in a quixotic attempt to improve the relatively few areas that might have a direct impact on their final scores. Such decisions rarely have a positive impact on student learning. Instead, they result in cookie-cutter institutions blind to the unique student and faculty cultures that can make colleges and universities vibrant centers for learning and economic development.
Author Perspective: Analyst