Opinions, Column

It’s Time to Reject College Rankings

A decision made by Bloomberg Businessweek has the potential to turn the world of higher education on its head (again): SAT scores got the small envelope when it came to this year’s Best Undergraduate Business Schools rankings. The removal of this last piece of admissions data from the ranking system means Bloomberg’s list is now entirely based on career metrics—feedback from students and employers as to how well the school prepared them for the workplace, as well as data on starting salaries and student internships.

This shift spurred an unprecedented amount of movement among the business schools represented: Villanova Business School shot up 23 spots to No. 1 overall, while University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and Cornell’s Dyson School took some of the biggest bruisings. The biggest winners, however, were public institutions, like Ohio and Penn State, which almost universally moved up on the list. (Boston College’s Carroll School moved up one spot to No. 3).

On some level, this type of fluctuation speaks to the broader problems with educators’ building institutions around arbitrary rankings, published by for-profit organizations with no real skin in the game when it comes to the well-being of the U.S. higher education system. But as much as I’d like to convince myself that this particular shift is signaling an end to the ranking obsession, we all know better.

As admissions metrics get phased out of the equation, we can already see universities stumble from one failed paradigm to the next, doubling down on their investments in pre-professional offerings, much as they have in admissions and marketing over the past decade.

U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges list, arguably the most influential ranking out there, still take into account SAT scores and selectivity, but over the years it has diluted the influence of these “input” measures in favor of “output” measures, such as retention and alumni giving rate. SAT scores, once an obsession of the higher ed world, have fallen out of favor as an increasingly large body of research has come to document the the troubling relationship between family income and test performance. And while the race to accept zero percent of students is still alive and well (as The New York Times’ Frank Bruni comically chronicalled on April Fools’ Day), there’s an increasing sense that the world of admissions is in need of drastic reform.

The recently formed Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which now includes 92 universities, is the most prominent effort today to open up opportunities to a more diverse group of students by revising admission approaches. All types of institutions, however, are reconsidering the weight of SAT scores in deciding who they accept. And while there’s no definitive solution to it all just yet, colleges are rightly using this opportunity to do some soul-searching.

So as universities begin to unwind decades worth of admissions hysterics, reprioritizing their own standards and ethical imperatives over the tyranny of the rankings, it would be foolish not to consider how we might better protect them from the next craze. When the weight of traditional admissions statistics was lessened, colleges actually began thinking more critically about how that process could better serve students. Innovation in higher education is stymied by rankings, which incentivize universities to focus on the standards of today rather than develop standards for tomorrow, and push universities to move in lockstep on the most important questions about what higher education should be.

Decades of obsession over rankings have pushed universities to be less creative and more alike—all while artificially elevating institutions that have historically catered to the wealthy. For high school seniors, this failed system has divided institutions into the attainable and the unattainable, placing invisible barriers throughout the process built around class, race, and wealth—all at a time when universities are increasingly relied upon to create opportunity for all.

Higher education, at its best, has transformative power. It can help level decades of inequality, ensuring that students from all walks of life are given the opportunity to do well. But realigning ourselves to focus on “output” rather than “input” simply subjects us to another form of tyranny. It threatens to further break down the divide between classroom time and corporate recruiting, and puts the liberal arts—long the cornerstone of our education system—on the chopping block. When administrators gamify educational offerings in pursuit of illusory, often shortsighted standards they themselves do not set, they’re selling their institutions short.

The mission of a company is often lost when it goes public, with short-term gains placed above the goals of its founders. Universities are subjecting themselves to similar perils when they choose to constantly realign themselves internally to best fit external pressures. The traditional corporate model, which places self-enrichment and growth over all else, is ill-fit for education.

Rankings, at best, reflect the fears of high school seniors and their parents (justified and unjustified), giving precedence to concerns over prestige, payback period, and employment opportunities. They speak to the marketability of an institution, but do not appeal to our best natures—as educators, as administrators, and as students.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

April 20, 2016

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