And here they are, the rankings that everybody loves to hate… the U.S. News & World-Report 2018 Best Colleges ranking.
There are numerous other rankings, but the U.S. News publication seems to carry the most clout. I list the rankings here not so much as an objective indicator of the quality of Virginia’s 15 four-year institutions of public education but as a gauge of their relative prestige. Prestige matters because the endless quest for status is one of the primary drivers of college and university priorities and spending.
The aspiration to higher rankings, hence greater prestige, is an endless treadmill. While Virginia’s public institutions strive to climb the ladder, so is every other college and university, both public and private. It’s difficult to rise in the rankings when every other institution in the country is trying to do the same.
Many institutions game the system by applying scarce funds to line items that influence the ranking metrics. Accordingly, it is especially useful to see what U.S. News counts and how institutions might invest resources to improve their scores.
Graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent). U.S. News gives 80% of this measure to the six-year graduation rate and 20% to the first-year retention rate. One can predict that institutions will invest resources to create programs that will influence both of these metrics. Likewise, one can predict that a disproportionate share of resources will be devoted to improving the first-year retention rate.
Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent): U.S. News uses two measures here: academic peer ratings and high school counselor ratings. These are purely subjective, of course. One cannot help but wonder the degree to which the high school counselor ratings are influenced by… previous U.S. News & World-Report rankings. I would hypothesize that institutions intent upon improving their rankings would make efforts to increase visibility among high school counselors. Likewise, I would expect colleges to invest in recruiting star faculty who might bring renown to the institution.
Faculty resources (20 percent): Class size accounts for 40% of this measure. The most points are given to classes with fewer than 20 students, a decreasing number of points are given to classes with 20-29, 30-39, and 40-49, and no points are awarded for classes over 50. I would hypothesize that institutions would respond to this incentive by structuring class sizes to admit the maximum number of students within one of U.S. News‘s brackets. Thus, we would expect to see many more classes enrolling, say, 19 students than 20 students because 19-student classes earn more points under the U.S. News methodology than 20-student classes.
Student selectivity (12.5 percent): Two of the three metrics used in this category are average SAT score and acceptance rate. I would hypothesize that colleges and universities dedicate considerable resources to recruiting high-SAT students, and also that they also dedicate resources to ginning up lots of applications in order to generate the best possible acceptance rate to foster the image of popularity and selectivity. Also, one would expect institutions to dedicate resources to the kinds of assets — newer buildings, cushier dormitories, better food choices — that provide a quick, visceral appeal to high school students visiting campus.
Financial resources (10 percent): U.S. News rewards average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditure. It does not count spending on sports, dorms and hospitals. One would expect universities to adjust their accounting classification of expenses to maximize spending in the favored buckets. Among wealthier institutions, I would predict, there is no practical limit to money spent on student “enrichment” programs such as semesters abroad.
Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent): Adjusting for SAT scores, high school standing, and Pell Grants, U.S. News measures the difference between “expected” and actual graduation rates. If the school’s actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college deemed to be enhancing achievement and over-performing. This strikes me as a useful measure, and one that is not easily gamed. I would love to see the data.
Alumni giving rate (5 percent): The percentage of alumni who donate to school is used as an indirect measure of student satisfaction. Of course, this is easily gamed. I would hypothesize that we will see greater resources and creativity expended over time to solicit donations. Even small donations will enhance an institution’s ranking..There are currently no comments highlighted.