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Expanding the Rankings Value Set: Pushing for a Reprioritization

The EvoLLLution | Expanding the Rankings Value Set: Pushing for a Reprioritization
By expanding the value set on which rankings are based even further, it’s possible for institutions to redefine the priorities of students to focus more on outcomes and their capacity to impact some of the major issues facing the United States and the world.

A recent report from the American Educational Research Association finds that both the U.S. News and Princeton Review higher education/college rankings actually have a huge impact on where students apply to college. Inclusion in these lists, regardless of placement in the top 25, can boost the number of applications received by a college between 6 and 10 percent.

I think it is fair to say that most of my colleagues would agree that the U.S. college ranking system is imperfect. Information around student earnings after graduation or future earnings and how that relates to education return on investment (ROI) are certainly fine metrics but I do not believe they make up the entire value proposition and are completely institutionally focused and motivated.

I am not suggesting abolishing the current ranking system but rather adding some additional dimensions. Let’s call it expanding the value proposition.

According to the University Innovation Alliance, the U.S. will be at a deficit of 16 million college graduates by 2025. For the first time in U.S. history, younger adults are less well educated than their parents.

What if U.S. higher education institutions expanded the student higher education value proposition and were additionally ranked or at least asked to demonstrate how they contribute to the following three areas?

1. Accessibility

This refers to the institution’s contribution to advancing the U.S. in the area of global competitiveness, particularly regarding how the institution is making quality degrees accessible to a diverse body of students. More specifically, what are these institutions doing to close the 16 million student deficit gap and what are they doing in the areas of accessibility, inclusion and affordability.

2. Collaboration

This refers to their contribution to dissemination and sharing of innovative ideas among one another. The University Innovation Alliance is just one example of a collaborative approach. This measure could be expanded further to highlight how a student’s academic and non-academic experience contributes to this area (undergraduate and graduate research opportunities, student-community collaborations, internships, etc.)

3. Opportunity Creation

Finally, this factor evaluates the opportunities for students to contribute or impact grand global challenges like access to food, water and energy; global climate change; social justice and poverty.

I realize that many U.S. public and private higher education institutions attempt to share and tell their stories around these three areas, most often as a public relations effort. My hypothesis is that if a method for students to easily compare institutions across these expanded criteria existed, this info would impact their decisions. According to, these are the top five reasons U.S. students choose a college:

  1. “The College has a very good academic reputation”
  2. “Graduates get good jobs”
  3. “I was offered financial assistance”
  4. “Cost”
  5. “I liked the campus after visiting”

These reasons make sense and have incredible merit in their own right. However, I do find it interesting that almost all of these reasons correlate to the main ways in which colleges are currently ranked. I cannot help but wonder what effect a shift or adjustment to the value proposition might have.

I also find it interesting how students’ goals after graduation seem to correlate to the emphasis focused on by mainstream approaches to institutional rankings. Cengage Learning reports that U.S. undergraduate degree earners list getting a good job or a high-paying job as a top goal after college. Over half list pursing an advanced degree or additional degree as an option too.

I am not questioning the value of these goals. I simply find it interesting that students seem to find value in the areas where we suggest there is value.

If you have followed my thinking this far, you might be saying, “So what?” Well, if you dig more deeply into Cengage’s report, you will see that running closely behind the financially motivated goals of a graduate are achieving personal satisfaction and serving and supporting others. What if the expanded criteria that could be presented in a more complete set of rankings provided a consistent and crosscutting way for students to easily see how an institution might impact or provide opportunity in these areas? The expanded criteria set would not eclipse the very important economic factors that students need to consider. Rather, the expansion would provide additional, and I would argue critical, elements to helping a student choose an education that will connect to a deeper value set.

I think we can all agree that we have several wicked domestic and global issues that will need to be addressed by future generations. My suggestion in this article is that we begin to illustrate, value and help students access an institution on a broader range of impacts then just economic. It seems there is a correlation between what we as leaders in institutions value and how that transfers to how students make decisions about our institutions. Let’s expand the value set now, be transparent and continue to expand higher educations and our graduates’ contribution to making the world a better place.

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