Moving through the ranks
Rankings are useful to attract good students, but universities should not be overly concerned with them
The University has recently been abuzz about a number of different rankings that have come out: first, the much-discussed No. 1 spot we snagged on Playboy’s list of the best “Party Schools” in the US; and, more recently, the Darden School’s No. 3 spot in the much more reputable rankings of the world’s best graduate business schools by The Economist.
Most members of the community celebrate these top-five finishes, although some students and many teachers decry the image that a first place finish in Playboy’s party school rankings gives our academic institution. Yet there has been comparatively little discussion about the value of rankings in themselves, especially when it comes to difficult-to-measure goods like education. People tend to accept at face value the legitimacy of the rankings; or, if they don’t, they tend to reject ranking systems altogether. A much healthier way to look at academic rankings is to view them holistically — as an appropriate way to identity excellent schools, but with major flaws that should influence our conclusions.
It is necessary first to recognize the value of rankings. In a competitive higher education environment, both undergraduate and graduate schools need a way to advertise themselves to potential students. Schools need to be able to compare themselves to other schools in a standardized way that allows school shoppers to weigh their options. Many different publications and organizations conduct independent rankings of schools, so that task is fortunately left out of administrators’ hands. Potential students can use these rankings to guide their decisions. Which schools consistently land high on the list? Which schools seem strong across a wide range of criteria? Rankings allow schools to stand out from their thousands of peers, and this is inevitably beneficial for academic powerhouses like our University. When a student can quickly see that the University was deemed the second best public university in the country, we receive more applicants, our admissions process becomes more competitive, and our student body is filled with higher quality students.
The difficulty of ranking schools, however, must give us pause. While there are certainly statistics that give clear indication of quality of education — student to teacher ratios, for example — many of the other criteria vary across methodologies and can be misleading or unduly influenced. For example, some school ranking systems use the number of professors who hold advanced degrees as a criterion, such as the recent business school ranking by The Economist. This may be indicative of quality teaching, but not always; schools may seek to increase their standing in the rankings by hiring more PhD.s., giving little thought to the teaching abilities of their candidates. A brilliant man with three different degrees may be incapable of effectively cultivating such knowledge in his students. Likewise, factoring in student ratings of the quality of their education is suspect, as oftentimes students have little else with which to compare their own educational experiences.
What this means is that we should encourage ranking systems — and care about where we generally fall — but the exact spot on the list should concern us less. Rather, we should focus on landing high on the list, such as in the top ten or twenty-five schools. Worrying about jumping from seventh to sixth, or even third to first, is wasted effort. Criteria shift; methodologies can be disparate and flawed; and the distinctions between the top ten schools, and to a lesser extent the top twenty-five, are often over-exaggerated, especially in terms of the quality of education students receive. We should treat rankings as guidelines and broad goals — hoping to land high on the list, but beyond that giving little thought or credence to distinctions.
Focusing simply on providing the best education possible will always serve the University well, and if we continue to strive toward Jefferson’s goals — namely, sound and honest scholarship — then we will always be at the top of the list. Where exactly we fall will change from year to year; but our reputation and our commitment to excellence won’t, and we can trust that this will shine through. That’s all the University should care about in the long run.
Russell Bogue is a Viewpoint writer.