Rankings and University Decision Making

A new report that studied Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan says rankings can encourage innovation.

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College rankings have become a global phenomenon since U.S . News first published our America's Best Colleges rankings in 1983 and are perhaps becoming a positive force for innovation at some colleges. There are now more than 40 countries with national rankings systems, and there are also a few international ranking systems that compare colleges across the world, including our World's Best Colleges and Universities.

Of course, it's clear that rankings are controversial, and many in academia in the United States and around the world have many issues with these systems. Some even believe that rankings do far more harm than good in terms of influencing higher education policy.

However, a recent report, "Impact of College Rankings on Institutional Decision Making: Four Country Case Studies," concludes that rankings have had a positive and innovative impact and that U.S. institutions should study those results. The report was published by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) in Washington and was based on interviews with key institutional stakeholders in Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan.

IHEP President Michelle Asha Cooper said that:

"at a time when institutional accountability, assessment, and data-driven decision making pressures are at a high both in the United States and abroad, this report provides a useful framework for considering how rankings add to and distract from institutional improvement efforts. It is our hope that institutions will consider the strategies used in other countries to reexamine the positive and negative ways rankings are influencing their own work."

The report says rankings influence institutional decision making in strategic positioning and planning, staffing and organization, quality assurance, resource allocation and fund raising, and admissions and financial aid.

Based on the case studies, the report recommends five ways that American institutions could use rankings to run their institutions in more innovative ways.

"1. Improved data-based decision making. Rankings can prompt institutional discussions about what constitutes success and how the institution can better document and report that success.

2. Increased participation in broader discussions about measuring institutional success. Rankings can encourage institutions to move beyond their internal conversations to participate in broader national and international discussions about new ways of capturing and reporting indicators of success.

3. Improved teaching and learning practices. While the case study institutions continue to point to their changing practices that alter input indicators—increasing selectivity, favoring research over teaching, and strengthening the faculty profile—a number of institutions are also reporting changes to practices directly related to student learning and success.

4. Identification and replication of model programs. Institutions should be open to using rankings to identify and share best practices.

5. Increased institutional collaboration. Rankings can be important starting points to identify institutions with which to collaborate and partner."