Why Ranking College Rankings Matters

When prestige is the driving force, it’s no wonder college admissions scandals splash across headlines.

I remember filling out my college applications. As I carefully jotted down all the required information and filled in the boxes, I remember my mind racing with questions: Were these the right colleges to be applying to? What is a “good” school? What is a good school for me (and are those the same things)?

I also had more immediate concerns, like whether I’d belong once I got to college, or whether my scholarships would be enough with me working and paying my way through school.

Ultimately, I chose to attend the University of Colorado, Denver, and it set the stage for a fulfilling first career, which led me to my work at the Gates Foundation. In retrospect, I feel good about the decision I made, but in perusing the recently released college rankings from the Washington Monthly and U.S. News & World Report, I wonder how my own thinking would have been different if I’d had that kind of information when I was applying to colleges.

Every year, millions of students and families have to navigate the college admissions landscape. And with more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, many families value having a starting point to inform their decision-making. Rankings play an important role in helping them understand the differences between colleges.

That’s why the Gates Foundation is a proud funder of the Washington Monthly college rankings—a different kind of college ranking that isn’t predicated on school wealth or prestige but based on what colleges do for students and the country at large. The Washington Monthly rankings measure if students from low-income backgrounds move up the economic ladder into the middle class or higher, how colleges generate research and discoveries, and how many students go into public service. They even identify which colleges are best at getting students to vote.

Will a first-generation college student fare well on campus, and will they graduate? Will students learn the skills and knowledge necessary to earn a living and even change the world? Will they be likely to pay back their loans? These are the metrics that colleges should be judged on—not on how much their alumni give or how much their faculty are paid, which are criteria in the U.S. News rankings.

For too long, higher education has put prestige and exclusivity ahead of inclusivity and student success. And while U.S. News deserves some credit for recently including a new “social mobility” category, the nature and makeup of those rankings has contributed to the elitist culture. For example, should alumni giving really be weighted equally with social mobility for students? What we expect and prioritize from colleges can impact how they approach their work.

College leaders will tell you about the lengths their institutions will go to climb the U.S. News rankings, knowing that moving up even just one rank can mean more applications, donations, and revenue. College admissions officers have seen the way universities will sometimes take steps that are “counterproductive” to their mission of serving students in order to move up the rankings.

But rankings themselves are not the problem. We rank many things in life—from sports teams to best-selling books. The problems start when rankings create incentives that work against the best interests of students. When prestige is the driving force, it’s no wonder we see college admissions scandals splash across the headlines. These scandals illustrate how influential, and potentially harmful, school rankings can be, while also obscuring the bigger fact that elite schools educate very few of our college students.

Here at the Gates Foundation, we’re working to shift the conversation about education after higher school to focus on what benefits students, families, and their communities the most. It’s why we’ve formed a Postsecondary Value Commission, launched earlier this year, to define the value of a degree and how to measure it.

We also partner with colleges and universities committed to dramatically increasing student success and erasing success gaps by race and income by transforming how they operate. Several of our partners, including University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Florida International University, rank highly in the Washington Monthly “Best Bang for the Buck” categories, which is a testament to how hard they’ve worked to increase student success for their diverse student bodies.

One person’s college choice can ripple to affect everyone. After all, in college, students learn to become contributing members of society with whom we interact at the office, the store, our place of worship, etc. It does us all good when students pick a college or university that gives them a great experience and prepares them for life ahead. And having rankings that prioritize those outcomes above prestige and fundraising is in the best interest of students, families, and the higher ed sector as a whole.

This piece originally appeared on Medium. 

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Allan Golston

Allan Golston is president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's U.S. Program.