Written by: DeAndra Beck
Primary Source: Green & Write, December 8, 2016
Over the past decade, an interesting phenomenon emerging from the marriage of big data analytics with social media and online platforms is the widespread availability of online reviews and rankings. Consumers now have a plethora of information to consult when buying cars or choosing economically competitive hotels or finding new employment opportunities. What is the best retirement location? The nicest vacation spot? The most lucrative career? The latest trending musician? The top selling book? The highest polling politician? The most reliable toaster? Consumers of all kinds are making choices based on this assemblage of data, notwithstanding its variability and, at times, its lack of accuracy or veracity. Higher education institutions are not immune from this trend, and increasingly, metrics and rankings have become tools for decision-making.
With respect to higher education institutions, who might be interested in these metrics and rankings? Certainly, students (undergraduates, graduates, and postdoctoral) are interested in rankings, including students from the U.S. and the international students who are making expensive choices with little firsthand or even secondhand knowledge. Domestic and international faculty and scholars want to know whether a prospective place of employment or professional development is advantageous for their career objectives or has the attributes that meet their personal needs. Domestic and international funding organizations want to ensure that their financial investments will be productive and well-managed. Alumni can be persuaded to invest in the success of their alma maters.
The metrics employed in rankings of higher education institutions are highly variable and are often dependent on the nature of the consumer. Faculty may consider external funding trends and publications/citations of a research-oriented institution. Students and their parents may be interested in average time-to-degree completion and percent of graduates who are employed within a year of graduation. Prospective donors might be attracted to institutions with a highly ranked athletics program.
A number of organizations have begun compiling a variety of metrics on higher education institutions, both in the U.S. and globally. Some of the most regarded rankings include the U.S. News and World Report U.S. College Rankings (undergraduate and graduate), U.S. News and World Report Global University Rankings, Times Higher Education World University Rankings (London), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings (London), and the Shanghai Ranking of World Universities. Additionally, the American Association of Universities (AAU) is an elite North American organization of the top research-intensive universities whose membership is extended by invitation: “In assessing potential new member universities, the evaluation of university profiles based on the Membership Indicators is the first stage of a two-stage process used to identify institutions that may be invited into membership.”
Michigan State University has created a comparative table of the metrics being used for peer comparisons. Some metrics (citations and products such as publications, books and conference proceedings) are widely considered by the ranking schemes. Interestingly, many global rankings (U.S. News, Times Higher Education, and QS) consider a qualitative faculty reputational survey. Other metrics may be unique to a specific ranking system, for example, alumni giving rate (U.S. News and World Report Graduate and Undergraduate Rankings) or percentage of alumni with prestigious awards (Shanghai World Rankings).
Michigan State University’s International Studies and Programs is considering this comparative matrix of metrics in our strategic planning process. While some of the metrics are impacted significantly by external factors (e.g., research expenditures), others may be influenced by specific attention or investment (e.g., percent international students or percentage of publications with international co-authors or number of PhD’s awarded per faculty).
There is much debate, controversy, and research regarding these metrics and the data used to inform them, including the fact that student retention and graduation rates are the main proxies for teaching effectiveness. But few would argue that the overall focus of the metrics being captured (research productivity, student success, international engagement, and institutional reputation) are inconsistent with the aspirations of many higher education institutions globally. Given that higher education institutions must operate in the here and now and must make informed choices about investing often limited resources, addressing the ranking metrics is one of many considerations in the decision-making process.
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