Rankings that Make a Difference

Posted on: Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 by Jake B. Schrum
Do college ranking services have anything to do with helping students advance their futures beyond college. Unfortunately, today’s college rankings focus so much on institutions and so little on students as to make them largely irrelevant to the group of people who can make the greatest difference to the futures of college graduates – employers.

Let’s assume that college rankings have value. Let’s assume that prospective college students and their parents benefit from the publication of long, multi-categorized magazine lists purported to identify the “best colleges” in America using metrics weighted and screened by experts in analytics and statistics.

But here’s something we cannot assume: These rankings have anything to do with helping students advance their futures beyond college.

They should. They could. But, unfortunately, today’s rankings focus so much on institutions and so little on students as to make them largely irrelevant to the group of people who can make the greatest difference to the futures of college graduates – employers.

An examination of U.S. News & World Report rankings reveals a system that is heavily biased toward measures of “prestige” (peer evaluations, financial resources, faculty salaries and entrance scores) rather than the quality of graduates from those institutions.

In addition, by including retention rates, U.S. News makes a bold assumption that higher retention translates into better graduates. At best, retention rates measure a school’s ability to offer the courses and services to help students graduate; not the challenges and motivations necessary to help them succeed beyond graduation.

Seven years ago, Forbes magazine sought to offer an alternative to U.S. News rankings that focused on student outcomes and the quality of teaching that supports student success. Eventually, however, the Forbes standards devolved into a faint reflection of the same measures used by U.S. News as financial resources began to overtake the quality of teaching as a measure of success. Although the Forbes ranking has various commendable means to measure successful graduates, it falls short in quantifying the value of students to employers upon graduation.

Rankings that serve employer interests...

The ranking system that comes closest to serving the interests of employers is the one provided by Washington Monthly. This ranking includes heavily weighted measures of student engagement in community service and research—endeavors that demonstrate qualities important to employers, such as leadership, curiosity and initiative.

In addition, Washington Monthly in general places a high priority on what colleges and universities do for society. Ultimately, this emphasis aligns strongly with the needs of potential employers, who often are seeking workers who can become leaders – people who look beyond themselves in service to a larger mission.

But even this commendable approach to comparing institutions of higher learning could go further toward rating the contributions that students can make to their future work places. A good ranking system in this regard would seek to measure, for example, student collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and problem solving.

Specific metrics also could gauge the number of students experienced in inter-departmental learning or the degree to which graduates value their college internship experiences. Rankings experts could rely on information gathered annually from other sources related to the quantity and quality of student engagement beyond the classroom. Rather than a survey of peers, an improved college ranking would query employers for an evaluation of a school’s graduates, their ingenuity, their motivation, their productivity and their initiative.

We owe a great debt to news organizations that seek to help readers wade through the often difficult process of choosing a college. U.S. News insists that its ranking is not intended to be the last word on college quality, nor should college administrators manage their institutions in a way that would improve their position in the rankings.

This qualifier by U.S. News is important and adds value to the contribution made by its rankings. But just as we challenge students to think critically and to ever increase their excellence, we should challenge ranking organizations to be open to processes that could better serve the next generation of leaders and the people who employ them.


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