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Are College Rankings Rigged?

Crossposted at The Bottom Line

Each year high school students and their parents, along with prospective graduate and professional school students, consult university ranking lists. Most well-known is the U.S. News & World Report Ranking List. These rankings have an indisputable impact on universities and a powerful influence on prospective students.

U.S. News & World Report, the first college ranking list, made a big splash upon its launch in 1983. The influence of the list is profound. It not only attracts more applicants and increases alumni donor support to a university, but it also offers university stakeholders — board members, faculty, staff, alumni, students, and their parents — bragging rights and a system for top universities to maintain their recruiting dominance. In short, the higher the ratings the more attractive the university.

The U.S. News & World Report rating methodology is based on the following percentage weights assigned to each ranking factor:

  1. Peer Assessment Survey (20%)
  2. Average Six-Year Graduation Rate (17.6%)
  3. Financial Resources Per Student (10%)
  4. Graduation Rate Performance (8%)
  5. Class Size Index (8%)
  6. Faculty Compensation (7%)
  7. Math And Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Portions of the SAT and the Composite Act Scores (5%)
  8. Average First-Year Student Retention Rate (4.4%)
  9. Percent Faculty with Terminal Degree in their Field (3%)
  10. Average Alumni Giving Rate (3%)
  11. Graduate Indebtedness Total (3%)
  12. Pell Grant Graduation Rates (2.5%)
  13. Pell Grant Graduation Rate Performance (2.5%)
  14. High School Class Standing in Top 10% (2%)
  15. Graduate Indebtedness Proportion with Debt (2%)
  16. Percent Faculty that is Full Time (1%)
  17. Student-Faculty Ratio (1%)

Dr. Jed Macosko, Professor of Physics at Wake Forest University and President at Academic Influence perceives a weakness in the methodology:

At the top of the list is an assessment survey that goes out to university presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions around the country. This most certainly represents one way to rank quality. But it’s really a way to rank the kind of popularity that we humans are prone to value — prestige. While a future employer may care about prestige, it should not be the top metric for ranking a college or university. The peer assessment survey has an echo effect, meaning that the surveys reflect the rankings from the previous year. In other words, when a president, provost, or dean is asked to list the good schools, they are no doubt influenced by the list itself. Indeed, the most heavily weighted component reinforces the U.S News’ own rankings.

Jed Macosko, President at Academic Influence

Based on the view that the U.S. News & World Report rating system may not be the most accurate reflection of the school, Macosko, along with his colleagues at Academic Influence, offer an alternative method to ranking colleges and universities. They use big data to assess a school’s influence. Macosko explains:

We use three databases. Two of the databases allow us to rank schools in two important ways: by their influence and by their Concentrated Influence™. The third database tells us where students chose to go to college when they had a choice between two or more schools and gives us each school’s desirability in the eyes of a typical student. So, between influence, Concentrated Influence™, and desirability, we have three powerful ways to rank universities.

Influence and desirability are two general ways to think about the quality of schools. Influence tells students and their parents whether people who work at the school or graduate from the school have a big impact on the world. Desirability reveals the popularity of each school and is a metric that other people have used to rank universities, though sometimes under a different name. Concentrated Influence™, on the other hand, is a new way to think about university quality. It starts with calculating influence for each university, then dividing by the undergraduate population.

The rationale is that, suppose you are interested in studying math and you have been accepted to two universities that both have five very influential math professors and five equally influential math alumni. One school has 1,000 undergrads while the other has 10,000. Which one should you attend if you want to have the best chance of interacting with the five amazing professors or be helped in your career by those five amazing alumni? Most likely, you would choose the smaller school so that you have a better chance of getting some time with those influencers. That is why we treat Concentrated Influence™ differently than the other two metrics and use it when we talk about the “best” colleges.

We start by determining the influence of the alumni, professors, and administrators, then total them to equate the influence of the school. Influence is calculated by combining the number of times individuals are mentioned on Wikipedia with the number of times their writing is referenced at Crossref and Semantic Scholar. (Crossref and Semantic Scholar are two open-source databases that contain hundreds of millions of papers, articles, books, editorial, etc.)

Jed Macosko, President at Academic Influence

In short, Macosko aspires to offer a more objective way to rank colleges and universities — an approach centered on the university’s influence rather than its prestige. Could this be a way to improve college rankings — providing prospective students with a tool that gives a more meaningful assessment of a university’s rank relative to other universities? 

Yet, a prospective student may have other important questions about the educational quality of a university. For example, how effective are the faculty as teachers as opposed to their ability to advance their fields through research and publishing? To what degree does the university stimulate open inquiry rather than ideological indoctrination (which is the opposite of education)? The answers to these questions are not easily derived from either peer assessments or big data analysis.

No doubt, it’s a challenging undertaking to effectively create a system and gather data to meaningfully rank institutions of higher learning. Academic Influence’s approach appears to provide a significant improvement over U.S. News’s ubiquitous ranking system — one that could over time disrupt the university marketplace. The beneficiaries could be high-performing institutions that have been overshadowed by universities deemed more prestigious. Of course, the ultimate beneficiaries of this new university-ranking list competition are the students searching for the best university to attend — as well as their parents who typically foot the bill.

Keri D. Ingraham

Director and Fellow, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. Her articles have been published by the New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, National Review, The American Spectator, Washington Examiner, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, and a host of other media outlets. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.