I missed the original post last month on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog, but U.S. News blogger/rankings maven Bob Morse brought the subject up on his blog, Morse Code, just last week. And so I’ll bring it up here.
It’s a topic near and dear to the hearts of so many of us in higher ed PR and marketing circles. It’s a topic we love to hate, or hate to love.
I’m talking, of course, about college rankings.
Why College Rankings ‘Will Never Die’ is the title of Morse’s April 9 post. In it, he points to the Brainstorm commentary by Kevin Carey, policy director for the D.C. think tank Education Sector, who relates a conversation he had with “an education official from a large but sparsely populated North African country.” Carey says that conversation illustrated for him “why college rankings are an unavoidable reality of higher education in the 21st century and as such need to be embraced, not rejected.”
Morse quotes the crux of Carey’s argument for embracing rankings like U.S. News‘. As Carey writes:
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. [What Carey seems to miss is that “resource-limited” individuals may not be able to afford the online subscription fee U.S. News charges to access in-depth rankings. – me.] 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 responsibility 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.
I’m afraid Carey is correct. The rankings game will continue, and U.S. News and other media sources that rank institutions do so because they bring a sort of third-party validation to the process that higher ed just cannot seem to provide itself.
There is value to third-party organizations to provide information for consumers of education. But until U.S. News and their counterparts start emphasizing outcomes in their approach rather than the bogus reputational scores of college and university presidents and deans, their methodology will be suspect. And by outcomes, I mean measurable, quantifiable outcomes, such as average starting salaries of graduates by major, placement rate (not only occupational, but also in graduation or professional schools), and the like.
Unfortunately, educational institutions don’t seem to be able to agree upon the right metrics for their own ranking system. And so third-party rankings, like zombies, continue to rise up and feast on the brains of their readership.