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How College Rankings Could Help Improve Society

January 4, 2018
Graduate tossing mortar board

I’m a competitive person. I like it when my university rates high in national rankings—or any ranking that reflects the success of our students, faculty or community. We at Arizona State take great pride that our school has been ranked the #1 most innovative university in the nation for three straight years by U.S. News & World Report, ahead of Stanford and MIT.

I also value the role of rankings to help discern excellence, so important to our ongoing efforts to improve the work that we do throughout our programs and schools. Year-to-year rankings, however inexact, provide us one measure of progress and success.

Yet, as I’ve noted in this space before, the use of rankings to identify the most selective schools as the best schools in the country troubles me greatly. This is treated as a badge of honor—a proud indicator of the most “elite” schools—rather than a failure of design that excludes far too many talented and qualified students.

Take the 2018 top university rankings of U.S. News, then compare it to three years earlier (2015) and three years earlier still (2012). The same seven schools top each list: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, Columbia, MIT and Stanford.

All are very fine schools (I taught at Columbia for more than a decade), and all benefit from a methodology that rewards such criteria as academic reputation, how few applicants they admit, financial resources per student, alumni giving and graduation rates. Each of these factors benefit from relatively small student bodies largely drawn from the wealthiest of our nation’s population.

So imagine if school rankings were less focused only on awarding schools for their selectivity and wealth and more focused on societal impact. This could include attributes such as the number of graduates, number of STEM majors, socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, student debt levels and percentage of veterans.

Success in any one of these indicators represents efforts to improve the life prospects of individual students and our society more broadly. Success in each of these not only deserves the attention that rankings can help provide, they offer a powerful picture of a school’s mission.

This does not mean sacrificing the critical attention on research and scholarship—that is, what they produce. Nor does it mean minimizing the earned excellence of many of our finest and, yes, “elite” colleges and universities. But it would mean downplaying criteria strongly tied to family background and wealth. Many schools recruit students with high SAT scores, for example, results which strongly correlate with family income.

The pressure to take these actions to benefit in rankings—in essence, to game the system—has affected the trajectory of higher education and society; it has been counterproductive by encouraging universities to ignore such fundamental challenges as social and economic inequality.

The issue of income inequality in higher education was explored at some length by Benjamin Werdmund in Politico. He noted that such criteria “often serve as unofficial guidelines for some colleges’ admission decisions and financial priorities, with a deeply ingrained assumption that the more a school spends — and the more elite its student body — the higher it climbs in the rankings.” This may help fundraising and polish reputations in some circles, but it does harm to the critical challenge of expanding social mobility. 

This path is not inevitable, nor would rethinking and reworking the ranking enterprise represent simple idealism. We should count on our institutions of higher education to be drivers of positive change, places that serve the needs of society as a whole. It is their responsibility—our responsibility—to work for the creation of a more inclusive, egalitarian world.