On The Power and Influence of College Rankings

How important are college rankings these days? With so many different ones, such as top colleges and universities, top colleges in Texas, most affordable universities, top Christian schools, and top Catholic schools, to name a few, how much influence do they have? Is it ultimately for good or bad?

In her recent book Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education and a companion article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, higher education scholar Ellen Hazelkorn explores these questions, arguing that college ranking systems have become a global force, shaping the behavior not only of prospective college students, but also colleges looking to maintain or improve their rankings and reputation, governments deciding where to send their best and brightest, employers looking to hire the best and brightest, faculty deciding which schools are worth applying to, and even philanthropists trying to decide where to give their money.  According to Hazelkorn, the vice president for research and enterprise and head of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology, there are now regionally specific ranking systems in over 40 countries and 11 different global ranking systems, each with their own distinctive methodologies for determining which schools are better than others, and with varying degrees of credibility and trustworthiness.

These rankings influence schools, governments, students, philanthropists in good and bad ways Hazelkorn argues. On the one hand they help inform education consumers while keeping higher education transparent and accountable to some set of standards. On the other hand they can lead to students, schools and even governments making major life altering decisions based on faulty data or questionable methodologies. There is no such thing as a completely objective ranking, she argues. Subjective decisions are made in every system about what to measure and how much weight to give to each category of measurement, and often these decisions lead to rankings that are skewed toward wealthier and English speaking institutions, among other problems. Hazelkorn also raises the provocative question, if schools and governments are responding to rankings generate by private businesses or independent organizations, who’s really running higher education these days?

These are  all good questions and critiques. Here at The Best Colleges, we do our best to provide prospective college students with useful and credible rankings of traditional and online colleges and degree programs. Our assumption is that education consumers are entitled to accurate information about all of their education options before making one of the most important investment decisions of their lives. Hazelkorn’s argument is an important reminder that every ranking system has its biases and no comparison is perfect, which is why at The Best Colleges we always encourage students to use our rankings as a starting point for their investigations, not a substitute for personal judgment. It is also contains an important warning about the potential of market forces to generate both good and bad consequences, some completely unintended.

That said, the suggestion that ranking systems are becoming too powerful for their own good seems overblown, and frankly, misplaced. From Consumer Reports, to Car & Driver, to PC World, product ranking and review publications have worked to counterbalance the enormous power and influence of large businesses and corporations to shape consumer perceptions and desires in ways designed to increase their bottom line. At The Best Colleges we attempt to provide the same kind of counterbalance within the increasingly powerful and profit-driven world of higher education by providing honest, transparent, and independent analysis of colleges and degree programs that students can trust. Most colleges and universities are entirely trustworthy and operate with their student’s best interest in mind, but as the rise of diploma mills and the recent debacle over certain for-profit schools has shown, this sadly isn’t always the case. By working to highlight and reward the best reputable and accredited colleges and degree programs we’re working to shift the power of knowledge and the freedom of choice into the hands of those to whom it rightfully belongs: the student!

 

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