Ranking the Rankings

If it’s back to school, it must be time for the publication of college rankings. In recent days, U.S. News & World Report released its much-discussed rankings of U.S. colleges and universities, and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University declared its ranking of world universities. As my Innovations Blog colleague Richard Vedder noted recently, Forbes has its own rankings to compete with U.S. News, and Vedder (who helped Forbes come up with its methodology) argues that Forbes’s is better—that is, ranks higher.

My good friend Ben Wildavsky, a former education editor at U.S. News, discusses the proliferation of rankings in his fascinating new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World. Wildavsky devotes a lengthy chapter to global rankings and compares and contrasts the two main international rankings—the Shanghai rankings, which look primarily at science research (counting factors such as the number of alumni and faculty who have Nobel Prizes and citations in science journals) with those of the Times Higher Education Supplement, which heavily weights academic peer evaluations. Despite their fundamental differences, Wildavsky notes, in 2008, the top 10 in the two lists had seven overlapping institutions.

My own favorite in the rankings game is The Washington Monthly, which today released the 2010 rankings of “What Can Colleges Do for the Country.” While other guides “help students and parents decide how to spend their tuition dollars wisely,” the Monthly says its goal is “to tell citizens and policy makers which colleges [are] spending their tax dollars wisely.”  The Monthly ranks colleges and universities based on whether they promote social mobility; research, and service.  

As I’ve noted elsewhere, one of the intriguing findings of the Monthly’s social mobility ranking is that public universities systems where affirmative action by race has been banned—California, Florida, Michigan, and Washington—do particularly well on the social mobility front, perhaps because they can’t use race in admissions and therefore rely strongly on socioeconomic status instead.

This year, the Monthly also provides a negative ranking—listing the top 200 college “dropout factories.” The magazine notes that while high schools are labeled as failures if they have a 50 percent graduation rate, the 200 college dropout factories have an average graduation rate of just 26 percent. One article singles out Chicago State University, which has just a 12.8 percent six-year graduation rate, while other institutions with similar demographics graduate 40 percent or more of their students in six years.

While it is fashionable to bemoan rankings of all kinds, many are now recognizing that rankings should not be fought but improved upon. Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, told Wildavsky: “The reason rankings are popular is that they actually serve a purpose.” Rankings, he says, “are basically reflecting the market’s desire for more information.”

In the future, one hopes the proliferation of rankings will move us closer to the goal of providing students—and citizens—with the right kids of information.  

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