College Rankings Assume One Size Fits All in Higher Education
One size does not fit all in higher education
September 12, 2013
College and university rankings are ubiquitous worldwide. The U.S. News & World Report rankings garner headlines in the United States. The three major global rankings – the Academic Ranking of World Universities from Shanghai, the Times Higher Education global rankings from London, and the QS World University Rankings – are carefully watched by academic leaders, governments and the public.
Big decisions are made on the basis of rankings. Students and their families use them for deciding where to study, governments sometimes allocate funds on the basis of rankings and the academic community obsesses over its current score.
In today's world of mass and competitive higher education, rankings are probably and unfortunately inevitable. But what do the rankings measure? Everything and nothing.
They claim to provide in a single score the essence of quality. But quality cannot be measured easily, and some aspects of educational performance cannot be accurately assessed at all. Research performance is most easily assessed; it is possible to count articles, grants, books and to measure the impact of work in the sciences.
Most rankings rely a lot on measures of reputation, such as asking administrators and academics what they think about various universities. These are notoriously inaccurate. No one has wide knowledge of a range of schools, particularly if asked about institutions in other countries, and subjectivity reigns supreme. Other key variables cannot be accurately gauged. Teaching quality and learning outcomes are among the most problematical – and most important.
Further, one size does not fit all in higher education. Harvard University differs immensely from Bunker Hill Community College, just a few miles away. Rankings generally measure the research universities and neglect the rest. Some of the rankings change their criteria from year to year, thus making it difficult to trace trends over time.
Are rankings a good or a bad idea? As a way of obtaining truly objective judgments about who is ahead and who is behind, they do not do a very good job. Indeed, only the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities is truly objective and consistent, as it measures only research productivity and a few other variables over time and does not change its criteria. But it captures only a small part of the complex work of universities and totally ignores learning and teaching and other key missions. As a way of permitting oversimplified choices about which universities are "on top," they may be useful. And they illustrate just how competitive global higher education has become.
- Join the debate on Facebook.
- Follow U.S. News Opinion on Twitter.
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.