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Rank and File

Graduation mortar board sitting on a stack of books

U.S. News & World Report released their rankings of the Best Global Universities for 2016 this week. This follows September’s release of the Best College Rankings of 2016, which specifically identifies the top U.S. schools. Good, bad or indifferent, the rankings are undeniably interesting.

This year like any other has brought a wave of criticism of the rankings. In the past, this has included magazine articles, newspaper reviews and even an essay by Malcolm Gladwell. The authors take shots at the survey, and to be honest, I can’t argue with them. The survey changes the weights and metrics that affect the rankings nearly every year. It attempts to weigh intangibles, which in nearly all cases are subjective. Rankings could possibly be gamed by contributing universities as they direct their spending.

I do, however, think the critics are missing the point. In an attempt to take on the Herculean task of comparing apples to oranges—University of Central Florida to Harvard for instance—U.S. News gathers data on nearly 2,000 schools for the purpose of providing prospective students and parents with information about the schools. The goal is not to create the Holy Grail of university metrics, but rather a tool to help a student find the right university for him or her.

U.S. Newsmethodology can be summarized as follows:

Schools are broken down according to educational institution type, which is based upon the Carnegie Foundation’s classification for the Advancement of Teaching. This framework was created in 1970 to support the foundation’s research, and it is updated intermittently, most recently in 2010.

Schools fall into one of four classifications:

  1. National universities offer undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees and emphasize faculty research.
  2. Liberal arts colleges award more than 50% of degrees in the arts and sciences, focusing primarily on undergraduate education.
  3. Regional universities offer some post-graduate degrees but predominantly focus on undergraduate education.
  4. Regional colleges award bachelor’s degrees as well as two-year associates degrees. Generally speaking, they do not focus on the arts and sciences.

The data from the schools is analyzed to measure the following:
Freshman high school standing: The high school academic standing of currently enrolled students is taken into consideration. High school class rankings can vary to such a degree that many (including U.S. News) have been taking them with a grain of salt, and some no longer consider them. Of greater importance are standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. These grades are readily available and can be easily understood.

Student selectivity: In addition to rank and test scores, U.S. Newsalso includes the ratio of students admitted to those who applied. The end result is an indication of the abilities of the student body.

Graduation rate: The graduation rate is the percentage of graduates that complete their undergraduate degree in four years. This may not be the norm: according to a report published in 2013 by the National Center for Education Studies, 59% of first-time, full-time undergraduates took six years to complete their degree. Only those schools with high four-year graduation rates are given credit.

Peer assessment: U.S. Newssurveys presidents, provosts and deans to get opinions on academic excellence. This can include things like faculty dedication and teaching. They also survey high school counselors from U.S. News’ ranking of best high schools as well as college counselors.

Student retention: If students return after freshman year and ultimately graduate, it is usually a good indication that the school is meeting their needs.

Faculty resources: Simply put, if the faculty is happy, the students will be happy. Things taken into consideration are average class size, faculty salary, student-faculty ratio, Phds, number of full-time professors and the cost of living.

Financial resources: The rankings consider how much a university spends per student on education. Spending related to research, instruction, programs and university services indicates a financial commitment to a student’s education. Mind you, this does not include those expenditures that are not education-related, like sports programs, residence spending, maintenance and hospitals.

Alumni giving: If previous graduates believe in the university, it will be reflected in their giving.

The factors are not equally weighted.

In terms of a school waving a pennant and cheering, “We’re number one!” (by the way, there are numerous “number ones” in the rankings), the critics are right. The scope of the rankings makes a definitive number one out of reach. However, if you are a prospective student or employer, the rankings can come in rather handy.

It’s been my opinion that given the high cost of a college education, the only way it can pay off is for a student to begin early (i.e., in high school) with an assessment of his or her strengths and interests and then focus on schools that feed those passions and edify those strengths. Ultimately, it is how the student ranks a university based on information they derive from many sources (including U.S. News) that counts.

For an employer, rankings like those in U.S. News are important. As a provider of software for electronic trading, when we look for talented employees, we focus on degrees that feature math, engineering, computer science and business skills. The college rankings from U.S. News provide information that can assist us in targeting the most qualified candidates by breaking down the rankings for the best undergraduate engineering programs into specialties such as computer engineering. U.S. News also provides a ranking of the top undergraduate business programs broken down by specialty.

Much like prospective students look for a school that provides, among other things, the education they need, we look for schools that provide graduates with the skills we need.

When we find the schools, we typically find candidates, but the search continues as we ultimately seek skilled candidates who are not only skilled but also a good fit for our company’s culture.

In other words, the rankings aren’t everything, but they help.

Posted by: Leo Murphy, TT CampusConnect™ Program Manager

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