College Rankings Analysis Yields Surprises

Researchers from Penn State and Lehigh studied how schools improved their place in the rankings.

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Are the U.S. News " America's Best Colleges" rankings a competition between colleges? What are the most and least important variables for schools to improve in order to rise in the rankings? In "The University Rankings Game: Modeling the Competition Among Universities for Ranking," recently published in the American Statistician , Rajdeep Grewal and Gary L. Lilien of Penn State and James A. Dearden of Lehigh University analyzed the U.S. News college rankings to try to answer those questions for top college administrators. Their article is part of a rapidly growing body of literature on college rankings and the impact a university's strategy will have on its rank.

In order to survive, universities are being run more like businesses than they had been in the past. The authors say:

"environmental changes, particularly the recent marked increase in public availability of information, are resulting in the U.S. higher education system becoming "marketized." Universities are driven to act like firms in competitive marketplaces, seeking effective competitive strategies. Competition among universities to enroll students, hire faculty, raise funds, and improve their rankings published in magazines such U.S. News has increased significantly in recent years. University administrators increasingly rely on rankings as marketing tools, since rising university costs and decreasing government funding has increased the competition among university."

The authors applied sophisticated statistical techniques to our college rankings for the top 47 ranked national universities, covering the rankings from 1999 through 2006, as the basis for their analytical conclusions about the rankings.

Some of their key findings are:

1. When one university gains in the overall rankings, another must lose.

2. The universities most likely to lose are those with similar rankings. Therefore, competition for a place in the overall college ranking tends to be among those schools that are ranked closely to one another. This means that a gain or loss in the overall college rankings occurs within a few ranks at a time.

3. A top-ranked university has a 96.5 out of 100 probability of finishing in the top five overall the next year, showing that the rankings are very stable at the top.

4. The average absolute one-year movement in a school's overall ranking over the period of the study was 1.53 ranking spots, suggesting that the rankings do not change a great deal from one year to the next, as many critics contend.

5. Irrespective of a university's overall rank, the college should focus on graduation and retention rank and should not expect much of a return in terms of a rise in the rankings by putting a growing emphasis on increasing its average alumni giving rate more than its competition. This finding draws into question why many schools believe that sharply increasing alumni giving is a key to rising in the rankings.

6. A highly ranked university gets more leverage from increasing financial resources, while lower ranked universities get more leverage from improvements in academic reputations as measured by peer assessment.