College Rankings Reformed

The Case for a New Order in Higher Education

Reports & Briefs | September 20, 2006
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In August 2006, the newsmagazine U.S. News and World Report published new lists of “America's Best Colleges,” as it has every summer since it launched its college and university rankings in 1983. If past editions are a measure, the magazine will sell millions of copies of the latest report to students and parents eager to find the best possible place to pursue a higher education in a world where economic opportunity is increasingly defined by the learning that students obtain beyond high school. Today, more than two-thirds of new high-school graduates go directly to college, compared to fewer than half in the early 1970s.

Many other ranking reports and often-bulky guides to college admissions, including those from Barron's, Peterson's, and the Princeton Review, crowd book shelves and magazine racks. But U.S. News dominates the market for higher-education information. Applications and alumni donations rise and fall with the magazine's ratings, and many colleges and universities work assiduously to move up the U.S. News ranking ladders.

The U.S. News rankings have become the nation's de facto higher education accountability system—evaluating colleges and universities on a common scale and creating strong incentives for institutions to do things that raise their ratings.

But the U.S. News ranking system is deeply flawed. Instead of focusing on the fundamental issues of how well colleges and universities educate their students and how well they prepare them to be successful after college, the magazine's rankings are almost entirely a function of three factors: fame, wealth, and exclusivity. They directly or indirectly account for 95 percent of a school's ranking.

As a result, the influential rankings have led colleges and universities to focus their energies on becoming wealthier, more famous, and more exclusive, often at the expense of what matters most—educating their students well. College rankings have increasingly defined the terms of the marketplace in higher education and the message from the market is clear: wealth, fame, and exclusivity are what gets colleges and universities ahead today.

Gary Randsell, the president of Western Kentucky University (WKU), is well aware of that fact. While the lion's share of public attention to higher education is focused on elite colleges and major research universities, institutions like WKU—public, regional, masters-granting institutions—are actually far more representative of higher education today. Along with community colleges, the WKUs of the world are where most college students actually go to college.

By today's standards, Randsell has been an unusually successful president, rapidly growing WKU's applicant pool, enrollment and endowment, recruiting new faculty and building new university facilities. “I want nationally competitive faculty,” he says. “I want nationally competitive students. I want facilities that are national or world-class in terms of technology. I want a campus that is second-to-none in beautification. You've got to compete, you've got to work hard, you've got to be doing things that continue to improve your quality, or you're going to get passed in a hurry in this business….We're going to compete in that arms race and we're going to win.”

President Randsell's comments illustrate just how fiercely successful leaders will compete on whatever terms the marketplace demands—and they suggest how little the terms of today's marketplace have to do with how well students are taught, how much they learn, whether they graduate, and whether they succeed in their future lives.

Because today's rankings reward institutions for wealth, many college presidents are no longer national intellectual leaders but narrowly focused fundraisers-in-chief. Because rankings reward institutions for their “scholarly” reputations, colleges recruit faculty who are distinguished in research even if their teaching skills are sub-par. Because the current rankings reward colleges for selective admissions and high freshman SAT scores, more scholarships are going to wealthy, high-achieving applicants, instead of the lower-income students who need financial aid the most.

The failure of the U.S. News rankings to provide colleges with incentives to improve the quality of their teaching is one reason why studies have found that many American collegians aren't learning what they need to know. In a recent report on college-student literacy, for example, the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research revealed that only 38 percent of graduating seniors could successfully perform tasks like comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials.

What the U.S. News rankings do, in effect, is confirm the status of colleges and universities that by virtue of their prestige are valuable to students irrespective of the quality of the education they provide. Students could get a rotten education at Harvard and Yale and they would still be ahead of the game because Ivy League degrees have so much cache.

But the vast majority of college students—almost 90 percent—don't attend selective colleges and universities. They attend institutions that don't have the status to open doors for their graduates on the basis of name alone. Instead, what matters to these students is the quality of the education that they receive.

Reinforcing the status of the nation's wealthiest, most famous, and most exclusive institutions has been lucrative for U.S. News and other organizations that rank colleges and universities. But they have not deliberately excluded measures that shed light on the quality of college teaching and learning. Rather, they exclude such measures because information that answers questions that would be most helpful to the most students—Where are students taught the best? Where do students learn the most? Where do students have the best chance of earning a degree? Where are students best prepared to succeed in their lives and careers?—simply hasn't been available.

Until now. New research and advances in technology in the last several years have led to a host of new metrics and data sources that together offer an unprecedented opportunity to measure how well colleges and universities are preparing their undergraduate students. The new measures provide information about a range of important factors like teaching quality, student learning, graduation rates, and success after college. Many of them are eye-opening, suggesting that existing rankings badly mislead students and parents about the “best” colleges and universities. Some institutions currently mired in the lower reaches of the U.S. News rankings show outstanding results, while some of the exclusive institutions so prized by striving students don't live up to their reputations for excellence.

The wealth of valuable new information provides the possibility of replacing existing college rankings with a vastly improved ranking system. This report explains what the new measures can show, how those measures can be combined into new college rankings, and why the new rankings would benefit both students and colleges.

The new rankings would give students and their parents far more useful information for choosing colleges. They would create strong incentives for colleges and universities to take steps to improve their undergraduate instruction and reward institutions that have excelled at that task. They would bring two-year institutions more fully into the mainstream conversation about higher education quality. And they would even help address the problem of rising college costs.

In the long run, higher education would greatly benefit from the new rankings. They would give colleges and universities fair terms under which to compete and excel. They would help justify new public investments in higher education. And they would create a more dynamic, efficient market by giving students the ability to pick and choose the institutions that will actually serve them best.