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Start 2019 Right and Ditch College Rankings

Higher education should focus energy on serving students, not campaigning for rank in a broken college ranking system

By Amrit Ahluwalia | Managing Editor, The EvoLLLution: A Destiny Solutions Illumination

Welcome to an ongoing series by The EvoLLLution’s Managing Editor, Amrit Ahluwalia. His articles will recap content published on The EvoLLLution, providing postsecondary leaders with some wider visibility on what's happening in the fast-changing world of higher education.

Many folks start the New Year by taking stock of the good and bad in their lives, endeavoring to maximize the good and ditch the bad. This year let’s ditch college rankings, which serve the few and provide an incredibly cloudy picture of a wildly complicated space.

I’m not even going to dive into the multiple instances of data-fudging that throw a wrench into an already shaky premise. Instead, I want to take on the premise itself.

The mechanisms we use for rankings are outdated, disconnected from the genuine needs of modern students, and aim to reward colleges and universities for their adherence to an unsustainable model that works for precious few elite institutions.

The realities of the modern postsecondary market mean that most colleges and universities—institutions in the “middle” of the higher ed marketplace—won’t survive by trying to replicate the Harvard model. The Ivies and those at the “top” are broadly unaffected by the demographic and demand shifts that are causing chasms elsewhere. At the other end of the spectrum, niche institutions that serve unique markets with targeted programming can also weather broad shifts and remain relatively unaffected. But institutions in the middle? It’s time to serve students or disappear, and desperate attempts to mirror the Ivy Model tend to ignore the genuine needs of the learners themselves.

Ranking systems prioritize operating norms common in elite, R1 institutions: research funding, low student/professor ratios, students’ high school performance, institutional reputation, and exclusivity. Hilariously, a university president told me some years ago that a few months before the “reputation” surveys are done, she begins receiving mailers from universities across the country so they’re fresh in her mind when the call from US News & World Report comes.

Are these really the standards by which American colleges and universities should be judged?

I cannot state this more clearly than Lehman College President Jose Cruz did in his article on The EvoLLLution:

“In an era of unprecedented challenges for our institutions of higher education—including fiscal uncertainties, evolving demographics, changing technologies, and public questions about the value of a college degree—it is a waste of precious energy to think about rankings, and morally irresponsible to actively explore how to nudge our institutions up a notch or two.”

These rankings punish institutions for pursuing unique missions and devalue innovations that seek to increase accessibility and impact (an idea explored here by Hampshire College’s Meredith Twombly).

Cruelly, they try to force a beautifully diverse and expansive postsecondary ecosystem—one that endeavors to create opportunities for growth at every level—into a confining and unforgiving box.

“Institutional rankings today are focused on inputs, exclusivity and prestige,” said Greg Fowler, President of Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Campus, in an interview on The EvoLLLution. “They’re based on assumptions that may not necessarily be representative of the realities of today’s postsecondary space and they tend not to measure the students who compose higher education’s majority population.”

Student demographics are changing. More learners (both traditional and non-traditional) are focusing on outcomes, cost and value. As such, it’s critical to move past prioritizing factors that help institutions rank well and instead focus on developing institutional models that serve the students coming through the doors.

Institutional prestige today isn’t defined by adherence to outdated models. It’s defined by student-centricity.

Unfortunately, student-centricity is more difficult to define than “elite” because it’s dependent on the learners coming through the door at any particular institution. It requires leaders to know their learners, understand their needs, and devise specific approaches to address and serve them.

“Student centricity is certainly a differentiator for the colleges and universities that are focused on non-traditional students. Even in some of the more traditional schools you’re beginning to see this re-evaluation of processes and purpose,” said SNHU's Fowler:

“In traditional academia, customer service is a bad word because people immediately think about the customer always being right. But that’s not at all what I mean when I talk about customer service. When I think about working with students, I’m thinking, ‘How do we serve them best?’ In the past, institutions would simply put something out there and say, ‘Either eat it or don’t.’ We need to move past this.”

Achieving this kind of responsiveness and delivering on the expectation of student-centricity requires institutions to be contextual in their metric-keeping, and responsive to those insights. Importantly, it requires conscious thought to be paid to how metrics are collected and analyzed!

It’s not necessarily about coming up with a single pass/fail statistic that defines “success” (whatever that might be). It could be in adopting the Student Achievement Measure to begin painting a richer picture of whether students are achieving the goals they set out to accomplish upon enrolling (check out this great piece by Oakton Community College President Joi Smith to learn more about SAM).

Fundamentally, modern institutions have a responsibility to build a student-centric institutional model that’s designed to specifically serve learners on their terms. Modern institutional leaders have to have the courage, in many cases, to do this in spite of its effect on the rankings.

The bright side is that today’s postsecondary student is a seasoned customer. They may notice the rankings but, like any experienced shopper, they’re going to look to the institution that best serves their needs.

To learn more about the capacity for robust data to help design a student-centric institution, download the White Paper Transparency, Data and Divisional Management