University rankings: past, present, future

Originally posted on International Education News on October 10, 2014:

rankingsCollege and university rankings have been in the news recently, both in the United States and around the world as the Times Higher Education (THE) released their World University Rankings for 2014-2015 on October 2nd. THE describes the ranking as “the only global university performance tables to judge world class universities across all of their core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” As usual, universities in the United States hold the top spots, with CalTech topping the list for the fourth year in a row, and Harvard and Stanford coming in second and third place.

Since the publication, countries around the world have taken note and interpreted the results in a variety of ways. The Washington Post reports that the rise in the ranking of Asian universities is “worrying” for the U.S, despite what the THE called the “utter domination” of US universities in the ranking, with U.S. schools earning 7 out of the top 10 positions. The Guardian called attention to the success of Switzerland’s universities in the ranking system, noting that for such a small country they tend to earn top positions. The Malay Mail Online raised questions about why Malaysian universities, which the country’s leaders claim are among the “best in the world,” opted out, noting their low ranking in years past. New Delhi TV pointed out that India now has two universities ranked in the top 300; however, Indian universities have yet to make it to the “definitive top 200.” The Irish Independent noted that the country’s two top universities slid in the rankings and attributed the drop to the country’s inadequate funding of higher education institutions. Similarly, tvnz.co.nz reports that the decline of New Zealand’s universities in the rankings is related to a lack of financial support.

While these recent news reports focus only on the most recent THE rankings, other ranking systems for higher education have been making the news as well — with a different set of results. For example, the QS ranking gave the top spot to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Malaysian universities do participate in this survey, with The Malaysian Insider reporting that the University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) placed in the world’s top universities under 50 years old.

In the U.S., President Obama has introduced the idea that colleges ought to be rated according to measures that allow students and parents to understand the value of the education they receive there. In recognition of the fact that college tuition has skyrocketed over the past few decades, this rating system is being promoted (and debated) as one way to reduce the cost of college tuition, while also identifying the schools—and even subject areas—that will provide students with the most “bang for the buck.” While thinking of college primarily as an investment in a student’s financial (not intellectual) development might seem to miss what some might see as the point of an undergraduate educational experience, The New York Times recently reported that the American worker with a college degree now earns 74% more than their counterparts with only a high school diplomaDavid Deming, a Harvard professor who studies the economics of education, is quoted in the article as saying, “In the U.S., more so than in other countries, you as a family are making a larger and riskier investment in your own future…. College pays off on average but it has a ton of risk. Lower-income families can’t buffer that shock.” The fact that a college degree might have the potential to dramatically alter the trajectory of a person’s financial life, combined with the fact that income inequality is increasing in the United States, means that greater attention will be paid to colleges and universities that can prove themselves to be a healthy investment. To that end, the web-based professional networking company LinkedIn has now created its own ranking system—one that ranks universities based on career outcomes. Even H&R Block has created a chart linking college majors to individual earnings. The New York Times also released its own ranking, this one to measure economic diversity at the top colleges (with Vassar at the top of this list).

While all of this information can be head-spinning, there is still more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just released their own ranking of jobs that will be most in demand in the future. According to this list, by the year 2022 the U.S. will need more than 3.2 million registered nurses; the jobs that will be least in demand are those that require advanced university degrees. Considering this information, and other sets of facts, the effort to rank the schools of today based on what will be needed in the world of tomorrow seems daunting.

Considering the history of university rankings in the United States, some say that the value of an education is indeed undefinable, and that therefore universities are unrankable. The following podcast offers some interesting history on higher education in the U.S. Here, educational historians share what they know about the U.S. government’s early efforts to rank colleges (with the first ranking system created in 1910, ranking 344 schools), and efforts to make a college education more affordable and “practical.” They raise questions about the purpose of a college education that might be applicable to our understanding of what is going on in the world of international university ranking systems today.

Deirdre Faughey

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