What is to be done about rankings?

January 20, 2015
President, Campus Compact|

Join me in a thought experiment. Let’s start with the premise that colleges and universities—those that are publicly funded and those that receive a public subsidy through tax exemption—should serve the public. From there, we can conclude that rankings should reward colleges and universities that serve the public well (even if they also reward other things). How do our current ranking systems do?

Before answering, I want to note that rankings are on the agenda for people who care about the public purposes of higher education all over the world. I was recently at the Talloires Network Leaders  Conference in South Africa, a global gathering of educators and students. Over and over, we heard first-hand accounts of university leaders being pressured to push democratic and community goals to the background in order to advance in the rankings. Why would a university organized by residents in a rural community in Rwanda focus on research publishable in U.S. and European journals rather than on research that serves community needs? What else would we expect when national education officials tell them their funding depends on it? And what else would we expect from national officials when tuition and research dollars follow the rankings?

Rankings, however absurd, matter because they drive behavior. Right now, they drive behavior that undermines rather than serves public ends. In the U.S. News and Times Higher Education World University rankings, institutions do well if they turn away most students and accumulate vast wealth. The Times Higher Education ranking also gives universities credit for producing research that meets the standards of a narrow range of journals.

These rankings don’t ask whether institutions serve students from underserved communities. They don’t ask whether institutions support research that addresses issues of importance to their communities. They don’t ask whether graduates of these universities contribute to the common good.

There are some alternative rankings that head in this direction. Washington Monthly has taken the lead in developing rankings that try to capture institutions’ contribution to the country. Their rankings are clunky and arbitrary—you get as much credit for a research dollar spent on creating sweeter soft drinks as for one spent on improving early childhood education—but they ask the right kinds of questions. The New York Times  ranked institutions using a college access index, with the proportion of low-income students captured through Pell eligibility. That is not a perfect proxy for low-income students—high-wealth families with little income sometimes qualify—but it prompted a useful conversation.

So what can we do? One answer is to generate alternative systems of meaningful evaluation. The Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement is a great example. It’s hard to game because it is based on labor-intensive in-depth analysis. On the other hand, for that very reason it can’t be done every year and doesn’t result in a ranked list. So it’s never going to generate the media attention of rankings.

Because the rankings are unlikely to go away, what should those of us who care about the public purposes of higher education do? Many college presidents already express doubts about the rankings, with little evident impact. Perhaps the best answer is for institutional leaders to join together in collective action to (1) spread the word about the limits of rankings and (2) pressure rankers to design better ranking systems. College and university presidents could refuse to share data with ranking entities, refuse to use rankings in their marketing materials, and use their public voices to condemn the rankings. And they could collaborate on reports to public and private funders helping them see how existing ranking systems steer higher education away from serving the public.

The least likely institutions to join this fight, it might seem, are the winners in the current rankings game. On the other hand, many of those institutions have bolstered their reputations in part by establishing themselves as leaders in advancing higher education’s public goals. Nearly all are members of Campus Compact, which means they have committed themselves to re-shaping higher education to advance the common good (Presidents’ Declaration). Just as some of America’s wealthiest individuals have added their voices to calls for preserving inheritance taxes, perhaps—through organizations like Campus Compact—even the rankings winners might join a broad coalition of college and university leaders organized to take on the rankings. It’s worth finding out.

All posts are authored by Andrew J. Seligsohn, President of Campus Compact.