What is the Value of College Rankings?

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

Independence Community College recently declared itself “the most academically-decorated community college in Kansas.” It did so based on evaluations of the college by various outside organizations that rank colleges against one another based on various criteria. Should colleges (or the public) pay attention to such rankings?

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David Tomar writes: “These publications—which academics take special pleasure in deriding and universities take particular pains to satisfy—are a major driver of endowment decisions, enrollment figures, and employment opportunities. Rankings play a direct role in how aspiring college students select schools, how researchers build reputations, and how colleges position themselves in the marketplace.”

There is no question that such rankings have PR value. Colleges ranked in the U.S. News and World Report‘s “Top 25” will experience a 6-10% increase in applications. Colleges which already appear in that list and move just one percentage point upward will see a corresponding 1% increase in applications. Colleges which appear in Princeton Review‘s “Top 20 Best Overall Academic Experience” will see a 3.2% increase in applications.

Let’s use ICC as an example of the kinds of rankings in which the college can appear. As of the date of this post, here is what my email signature line looks like (formatting not preserved):

Daniel W. Barwick, PhD
Independence Community College
Like me on Facebook here, Twitter here, or visit my blog here
2018 – Ranked #1 Community College in Kanas
2018 – Ranked in the Top 25 Community Colleges in the United States
2018 – Ranked “Lowest Net Price” College in Kansas
2017 – Ranked #1 in Kansas for Success of Transfer Students
2016 – Ranked in the top 1% of Community Colleges in the U.S. for Student Educational Goal Attainment
2015 – Ranked in the Top 5 Most Affordable Community Colleges in the United States
2013 – Ranked in the Top 50 Best Community Colleges in the United States

Let’s take a brief look at some of the items on this list (by the way, ICC has also received other impressive rankings which it has chosen not to publicize; more on that later):

Schools.com, an online higher education resource, has ranked Independence Community College (ICC) first in its 2018 report, “Best Community Colleges in Kansas.” The company ranked 21 community colleges in Kansas based on multiple factors, including percentage of students enrolled in distance education; cost of attendance; student-to-faculty ratio; graduation rate; transfer-out rate; and flexibility. The report cited ICC’s intimate campus environment, the nearly 50 degree and certificate programs, and the unique opportunities the Fab Lab offers students. The full 2018 schools.com community college ranking is available at: https://www.schools.com/community-colleges/top-community-colleges-in-kansas

Previously, ICC also was ranked in the Top 25 “Best Community Colleges in America” by the web-based financial advisory company SmartAsset. Also this year, ICC was named the “Lowest Net Price College in Kansas” by the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, which studied 90 two-year public institutions in the United States.

Other significant ICC rankings in recent years include: 2017 – Number one in Kansas for “success of transfer students,” according to a study published by the Center of Science, Technology & Economic Policy at the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas; 2016 – Top 1 percent of Community Colleges in the U.S. for Student Educational Goal Attainment as ranked by the National Higher Education Benchmarking Institute.

About such rankings, only two things can be said for sure: schools that appear in such rankings tout them, and schools that do not appear in such rankings dismiss them. (There is actually one other common phenomenon: the school which is spending money to maintain a particular level of recognition without any obvious corresponding benefit except the recognition itself. Those schools get the best of both worlds: they get to point out that they are ranked, but also raise some criticisms about the ranking systems themselves.)

Unfortunately, it is very rarely clear why a school falls precisely where it does in the ranking system. The reason for this is that is that many of the systems are proprietary – they know that if they disclosed the actual selection process, then people could technically perform the ranking process themselves and wouldn’t need the organization which is published the ranking. As a result, why an organization moves a couple of spots from year to year in any particular ranking is often a complete mystery. (An exception is the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, which is, appropriately, very transparent.)

So what do the rankings actually tell us? There are really two situations in which a ranking is probably noteworthy:

  1. High ranking over time based on a fairly specific criterion. For example, a fairly common ranking is affordability. Although the actual affordability of a school for a specific student various tremendously based on the student’s specific circumstances, it is safe to say that if the school is consistently ranked among the most affordable schools among dozens or perhaps hundreds of peer institutions, that school is in fact relatively affordable. So in most cases, when a ranking is measuring a specific criterion and the outcome is pronounced and consistent over time, it’s reasonable to infer that that the schools ranking is warranted. Likewise, if a school is suddenly one of the least expensive schools in the state, without ever having been recognized as a good value and without having made any changes to leapfrog over competitors, I think that we have good reason to be suspicious of the methodology being used.
  2. A consistently higher ranking across a range of ranking organizations. Since each ranking organization uses slightly different criteria and also weigh those criteria slightly differently, I think it is reasonable to assume that the more organizations have examined the school, the more accurate is their cumulative judgment of the school. Therefore, a school which consistently receives consistently higher rankings in a specific area, such as student educational outcomes, probably does indeed have better outcomes than a school whose evaluations are all over the map.

Note that each of these drives what rankings my own school chooses to emphasize/publicize. Nearly all of the rankings included below my signature line emphasize specific features, like affordability and academic outcomes, and the purpose of the list format is to emphasize the repeated recognition in these areas we have received.

If these rankings have PR value, what steps should campuses take? I’ll make two points about this:

  1. Schools need to make a deliberate effort to determine whether they appear on such lists. (Typically, ranking organizations do not notify a school that it has been placed on a list. I have no idea why – surely, a ranking organization would want its list disseminated, and who better to do that than highly-ranked schools?) There are many rankings – some are put out by public organizations, some private, and some are simply the result of research studies which often do not reach the public unless schools promote the result. I think that small schools with correspondingly small PR departments are not doing this research – for this article, I checked the websites of schools named in the US Department of Education’s site, and found that less than half of highly-ranked schools had promoted their ranking. The primary reason why: When I contacted those schools, over three-fourths of them were unaware of their ranking, and one-quarter of them were unaware that the list exists!
  2. Schools should emphasize their ranking over time. As I mentioned earlier, schools which genuinely meet a specific ranking criterion are likely to meet that criteria over time, and this presents a PR opportunity for a school. Which is a better headline: “ICC ranked #5 for affordability” or “ICC among Top 5 Most Affordable for fourth straight year”? There is a tendency among schools to think that an award given four years ago has little value, but if it is part of a long-term pattern, it can have significant value.

What are your thoughts about college rankings?