College Rankings Will Never Die

Earlier this week I spent a couple of hours talking to education officials from North Africa and the Near East who are in Washington D.C. as guests of the State Department, learning about our education system. Near the end of the discussion, I had the following exchange with an education official from a large but sparsely populated North African country, the gist of which goes a long way toward explaining why college rankings are an unavoidable reality of higher education in the 21st century and as such need to be embraced, not rejected.
Official: Yesterday I was told that there are over 4,200 universities in the United States, is this true?
Kevin: Colleges and universities, yes, although that’s a pretty broad number that includes a lot of small religous and occupationally oriented institutions; if you narrow the field to “traditional” four-year private nonprofit and public instituions, it’s more like 2,000. But still, there are a lot.
O: You see, this is actually a problem for my country, because we are thinking of creating a program where we pay students to attend an American university, but we don’t know if it is okay to allow students to attend any institution or if we should have a list and say “you can only go to an institution that is on this list.” Can we assume that any accredited institution is a good institution?
K: Well, no, I wouldn’t say that, accreditation only guarantees a minimum level of quality and there are big differences among accredited institutions; some are much better than others.
O: I see, well, what about the “state universities”? I was under the impression that these are the official universities identified by the government as “the best” but now I am learning that may not be true.
K: No, some state universities are among the best and are very selective and receive a great deal of support from the government, but we also have many state universities that are not as selective and receive less funding, and while some of these are also very good some are not.
O: But then there are the private universities that we all know of such as Harvard and Princeton and so on, these would definitely be OK, yes?
K: Well, again, some private colleges and universities are very good but this is also a large and diverse sector of our system and so there is a great deal of variety and for every Harvard there others that are not so good.
And with this the official sighed because I was being of little help. His ministry of education didn’t have vast resources at its disposal to independently audit and evaluate the huge number of colleges and universities in America. Students from his country obviously can’t hop in the car with Mom and spend the weekend going on campus tours. He needs to make a rational choice with limited information, and so he’ll probably end up using some set of independent rankings as a guide — U.S. News, Times Higher Ed, Shangai Jiao Tong University, etc. By doing this, he’ll be subjecting his policies and students to the considerable methodological limitations of those rankings. But given the choice between using an imperfect measure of quality and no measure of quality, he’ll go with Option A.
The point being, this is an entirely rational approach. It’s what I would do if I were he. And in this sense the official is in more or less the some position as individual students all over America (and, increasingly, the world) when it comes to choosing which college to attend. The choices are so many and the institutions themselves are so complex that there is simply no practical way for time- and resource-limited individuals (or foreign ministries of education) to gather complete information about every possible choice. It can’t be done. So they’ll rely on some other, larger, self-proclaimed expert institution with greater resources to do it for them. And that gives the self-proclaimed expert, the evaluator, the ranker, enormous leverage in defining the terms of quality in higher education and as such the incentives under which decisions are made.
Things are only going to keep moving in this direction — more mobility, more information, more choices, more institutions or higher-education providers, more people all over the world having to make choices about postsecondary education and seeking guidance and interpretation to do so. Colleges can cede that responsiblity — and thus, control over their destiny — to for-profit newsmagazines. Or they can come together and seize that power back by defining and standing behind rankings of their own. And yes, it has to be a ranking, or some kind of process where institutions are compared to one another in a transparent, common way, a process that facilitates choice given time and resource constraints.
Moreover, I’m not convince that the traditional hands-on approach to college choice works so well. The minority of college students who actually choose among a signficant number of institutions generally seem to identify a band of colleges that they’re likely to be able to attend, and choose among them in signficant part based on the campus visit and the “feel” of the institution. This is apparently so important that some colleges are hiring consultants whose whole job is to “audit” the experience:
In his evaluations, [the consultant] rates the experiential qualities of each visit: Do visitors get a warm welcome from security guards and secretaries? Do tour guides ask open-ended questions? Does something fun happen?
I’m sure these things matter, but what do they have to do with whether students will get a good education and earn a degree? If students are making college choices based on whether they got a good vibe from walking around the campus for a couple of hours or if they happened to be assigned to a charismatic tour guide with a knack for storytelling, they’re probably going to end up making a lot of sub-optimal choices, which might go a little way toward explaining why transfer and dropout rates are as high as they are. They might be better off sticking with rankings.

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