Are College Rankers Becoming Too Powerful?

College rankings are growing in influence globally according to a new book.


Are universities overly influenced by the rankings? Are the ranking organizations themselves becoming too powerful, and are the rankers the ones really setting higher education policy? To what degree are students and others influenced by the rankings—and what are the long-term implications of the rapidly spreading global rankings movement?

In the soon to be published book, Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle For World-Class Excellence, author Ellen Hazelkorn from Ireland's Dublin Institute of Technology attempts to answer these questions for academics and the general public.

This very well-researched book joins a rapidly expanding body of literature on the impact of college rankings. The U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, which were among the first and are among the most influential rankings in existence, are mentioned many times in the book.

A few of the book's key points are:

Rankings are helping to reshape higher education and higher education systems, and to reconstruct our understanding of knowledge, and who and which institutions can contribute. The international evidence might still be patchy, but at a macro level, nationally and globally, states are locked into strategies for national competitive advantage [and they] have been to the fore in introducing policy changes that meet the (changing) norms of global rankings.

This has heightened attention on the importance of higher eduction if nations are to successfully compete. In some instances, this has drawn attention to the inadequacy of existing funding regimes while others have chosen to shift resources to areas that shape prestige, resulting in a negative effect on social equity. At the same time, the focus on quality has helped drive up institutional performance, providing some degree of public accountability and transparency.

In addition, rankings have prompted a wide-ranging debate about how the value and contribution of higher education to society and the economy can be better and more fairly assessed, measured and made more visible. At the institutional level, striving for status and reputation has been accompanied by the accelerated transformation of institutional culture and academic behavior.

Because of the correlation between rankings and status system, students, faculty and stakeholders have all been active consumers and advocates of ranking products. Thus, the overall impact is varied and multifaceted, positive and perverse."

Hazelkorn's work is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding college rankings and the increasing impact they are having in the U.S. and globally. She discusses both the good and the bad that have come with the rapid spread of rankings.

It's important to remember that the U.S. News rankings are conducted to provide one tool to help prospective students and their parents choose the best college for them. The Best Colleges rankings are not done to provide academics a benchmark to measure their institution's progress or to influence educational policy at any school. The bottom line: U.S. News is not running the colleges and does not play any role in making higher education policy at a state or national level.

For more of Hazelkorn's take on the rankings, see her recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: " Questions Abound as the College-Rankings Race Goes Global."

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