It is becoming common for American university presidents to get financial bonuses if they meet the goals of the boards of trustees that hire them. But the carrot dangled in front of the new head of Arizona State University still raised eyebrows.
As part of a wider bonus package, the entrepreneurial president Michael Crow was promised $10,000 if he could improve the school’s standing from its third-tier position in the principal American league table, published annually by the news magazine US News & World Report .
Even without such generous cash incentives, a few other US university presidents have stopped pretending to ignore the all-important rankings and unashamedly made clear their intentions to move higher in them.
Northeastern University, now 115th, has said publicly it is de­ter­mined to crack the top 100 by do­ing things such as adding faculty to lower its class sizes, a measure US News uses in its calculations.
Baylor University’s ten-year master plan explicitly calls for moving it from 81st to at least 50th. And when Cornell fell from sixth to 14th, alumni and students were so angry that the university launched a marketing campaign to increase the number of ap­pli­cants — another statistic scrutinised — and the school is rising again in the rankings.
Some in American higher education are now saying that enough is enough. Increasing numbers are refusing to fill out the “reputational surveys” sent to them by US News for their anonymous evaluations of other universities.
A new report from an influential think-tank says that the rankings threaten access by encouraging schools to lavish financial aid on students with high scores in their SAT college entrance exams, who will improve their standing, rather than on lower-scoring, low-income applicants who truly need the money.
A government commission on the future of higher education has proposed an independent system that would challenge rankings by measuring not only things such as how many students apply to a university but how much they learn there.
The presidents of 30 schools have pledged not to use the rankings to promote their institutions and are urging 600 of their counterparts to join them. The Annapolis Group, an association that represents more than 120 liberal arts universities, was due to hold a meeting this month to discuss that action and other options.
“It’s going to be the first serious discussion I’ve been part of where presidents really take this seriously,” said Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College and a longstanding critic of the rankings.
The sudden confluence of opposition to the rankings is a sign of “education resisting being commodified”, according to Lloyd Thacker, a former university admissions officer and founder of the Education Conservancy, which also opposes the commercial rankings.
“People are tired of it,” said Mr Thacker. “The rankings’ influence has grown beyond their value. They don’t measure what’s important, and they pit colleges against each other in a kind of internecine warfare. The only way to deal with it is by refusing to co-operate.”
That is what Dr Bennett and about a dozen other university presidents proposed in a letter to their peers in April, asking them not to use the rankings as a selling point, and not to respond to the US News reputational survey. So far, 30 have agreed.
Among other things, the letter says that the rankings neglect to consider the differences in educational mission among the nation’s many universities and encourage “wasteful spending and gamesmanship” by universities trying to improve their standing.
“A number of things have brought people into some awareness,” Dr Bennett said. “The biggest is whether this is a professionally responsible measure of educational quality. If the answer to that is ‘no’, then my not participating in it is the right approach.”
The movement gained momentum with the April release of a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which found that the rankings were altering American higher education by “creating incentives for schools to recruit students who will be assets in terms of maintaining or enhancing their position”.
But despite widening criticism of the rankings, presidents of universities at schools ranked in the first and second tiers are notably absent from the list of those 30 institutions that have agreed not to co-operate with the magazine.
Alisa Cunningham, the In­sti­tute for Higher Education Policy’s managing director of research and evaluation, said that it tended to be the institutions in the second tier that were competing most fiercely for students. “If the rankings give them an advantage, I would imagine they will continue to use them,” she said.
It is also hard to be among the few that, by refusing to co-operate with the rankings process, risk seeing their standing sink.
That is what happened to Reed College when it stopped providing statistics in 1995 as a matter of principle and US News dropped it from the second tier in its category to the fourth.
Presidents “are speaking out of both sides of their mouths” according to Mr Thacker, who is editor of the book College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy.
“One of the reasons is that they have this dual role. They have to be businesslike and yet they have to be above being a president. They have to be CEOs, but they also have to represent the interest of higher education. Some are acting more like CEOs.”
Even Dr Bennett concedes that he gets some “pressure” from his board. But he said: “They’ve listened to me about US News and the rankings industry for so long that they sort of cringe when anybody says ‘US News’ when I’m in the room.”
Dr Bennett complains that the collection of statistics from universities is like “wandering randomly through your kitchen grabbing a little of this off the shelves, and a little of that out of the refrigerator, and you put them in a blender, and you get a gooey liquid that you don’t know what it is”.
Magazines such as US News take into consideration the SAT entrance examination scores of entering students, for example, he said, even though repeated studies have shown convincingly that SAT scores predict little beyond a student’s first-year grades.
“Still,” said Dr Bennett, “I have less beef with US News & World Report than I do with university presidents co-operating with the rankings process.”
Some university presidents are doing more than cooperating. They are actively using the rankings to their benefit.
Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern University, said that the institution was trying to widen its reach by raising its rank.
“Although the rankings get a lot of bad press in higher education, by and large I think they push institutions in the direction of quality,” he said.
“The front-end goal was that Northeastern needed to reposition itself from being a local commuter institution to being a national institution, and these are things that would have to improve even if US News were not there.
“It shines a light on things that really needed to improve. For an upwardly mobile institution needing to overcome some reputational drag built up over the years, it’s a huge asset.”
Of course, for all that to be true, the rankings need to draw the full attention of their own and the universities’ intended audience — namely, prospective students and their parents.
And yet for all the angst of presidents, a survey by the Lipman Hearne consulting firm found that the rankings themselves rank far lower than universities seem to believe. Of the 14 most important variables in the choice between universities, prospective students put the rankings a distant 12th.
Then there is the question of whether universities, by refusing to participate in the rankings process, are trying to withhold information from students who are making what has become an enormous investment. It now costs $45,000 a year to attend many private, four-year universities in the US.
Dr Bennett denies any attempt to restrict information. “I agree with providing information wholeheartedly, which is why we put a tonne of data on our website. Anyone can look at it,” he said.
But Dr Bennett said some institutions, including those most highly ranked by US News, have also resisted attempts to push for new types of assessments that measure how well students learn. He said that he could only speculate whether that might be because the same institutions might not do as well on these types of evaluations.
The first attempt at such a substitute for rankings is the National Survey of Student Engagement, paid for by foundation grants and fees from participating universities and compiled by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.
It calculates how undergraduates spend their time once enrolled in higher education and whether universities employ “good practices”.
“Realistically, America is obsessed with lists,” said Mr Thacker. “There will always be a place for pandering to the lowest levels of appetites. But we have to treat higher education as more than buying a shirt or a car. The market behaviour has to be educated. And part of that is delivering alternatives.”
Nutty idea that might catch on? Campus squirrel ranking puts Berkeley in the lead
The American obsession with lists has combined with the penchant for parody in higher education to produce some less serious university rankings.
For example, Jonathan Gottshall, a former student at California State University-Fullerton, ranks universities in the US and Canada based on the health and population of campus squirrels.
“The quality of an institution can often be determined by the size, health and behaviour of the squirrel population on campus,” said Mr Gottshall, who employs a five-squirrel scale.
Then there’s the fictitious College Ranking Service, which echoes a criticism that other league tables reflect the wealth of universities more than any other measure.
The website, produced anonymously, admits to ranking schools solely on the basis of their affluence. On closer look, the rankings change every time the page is refreshed.
“Why does CRS rank colleges?” the website asks. “We do it because you want us to do it. We are all insecure creatures at heart, needing the reassurance that the decisions we make are the right ones.
“And it warms our hearts to know that we are providing you the best ranking service that the world can ever hope to obtain.”
US News & World Report
Business Week Top Business Schools
Kiplinger’s Best Values in Public Colleges
1. Univ of California-Riverside
2. Kansas State
3. State Univ of New York-Oneonta
Princeton Review’s Biggest Party Schools
1. Univ of Texas-Austin
2. Penn State
3. West Virginia
4. Univ of Wisconsin-Madison
5. Univ of Mississippi
Gottshall’s Campus Squirrel Ranking
2. US Naval Academy
4. Kansas State