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Academia obsessed, displeased with rankings

A broad international survey of academicians by the research firm Thomson Reuters reaffirms the love-hate relationship between colleges and collegiate rankings.

Higher education leaders are both obsessed and displeased with collegiate rankings. The survey, covering 350 higher education officials -- chiefly in Great Britain, the United States and Australia -- finds that 85 percent of respondents consider academic rankings useful.

But three-quarters of respondents believe that colleges manipulate their numbers to move up in the rankings. (Pumping money into lower student-faculty ratio, for example, or skewing admissions to higher SAT scores.)

Another interesting finding: It turns out that the U.S. News & World Report rankings, so pervasive here, aren't particularly well-known in the rest of the English-speaking world. U.S. News is familiar to 95 percent of American academics, but to less than half on other continents. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are most familiar in Europe, Australia, Asia and Middle Earth, er, New Zealand.

A third product, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, from Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, is fairly well-known outside the states.

Neither of the foreign surveys carries much weight here. It's off-putting to Americans, perhaps, to see Stanford ranked 16th by the Brits and Yale 11th by the Chinese.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  February 12, 2010; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  Administration , Rankings , Research  | Tags: Administration, Stanford, U.S. News, Yale, academic research, rankings  
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By and large the rankings create perverse incentives. Like in K12 education, what gets measured is what gets done. Anyone who has read Ronald Ehrenberg's detailed account of Cornell's attempt to exploit the rankings to look better than they really are, will quickly view the rankings with skepticism. So then the problem might not be so much with the rankings, but rather with what those who run them choose to measure. Couple that with the fact that many of the most essential qualities of an education are by and large immeasurable, and you can't help but have a flawed assessment tool. Really, when was the last time any ranking system tried to quantify "personal development" "growing up" or "being transformed by a roommate who is your opposite." I rest my case.

Posted by: EdObserver1 | February 12, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse

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