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New Report Explores How College Rankings Influence Decision Making

June 16, 2009

More than 40 countries around the world have established systems to rank the performance of their higher education institutions. A new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), "Issue Brief - Impact of College Rankings on Institutional Decision Making: Four Country Case Studies," - explores how rankings influence decision making at institutions, including how they are used, and what types of decisions they drive.  It also explores the nuances of rankings and the unique ways they could prompt institutions to work.

The study is based on interviews with key institutional stakeholders in four countries: Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan. The qualitative analysis of the institutional systems in these four countries suggests new uses for rankings at U.S. colleges and universities: 

  • Improved data-based decision-making. Rankings can prompt institutional discussions about what constitutes success and how the institution can better document and report that success.
  • Increased participation in broader discussions about measuring institutional success. Rankings can encourage institutions to move beyond their internal conversations to participate in broader national and international discussions about new ways of capturing and reporting indicators of success.
  • Improved teaching and learning practices. While the case study institutions continue to point to their changing practices that alter input indicators (increasing selectivity, favoring research over teaching, and strengthening the faculty profile) a number of institutions are also reporting changes to practices directly related to student learning and success.
  • Identification and replication of model programs. Institutions should be open to using rankings to identify and share best practices.

The findings suggest that institutions respond similarly to rankings, despite their different contexts and the extent to which they are tracking national or international ranking systems. When institutions focus on competition and modernization, they concentrate their efforts in areas that relate directly to ranking indicators, such as faculty profile, research production, and student selectivity. 

The report raises cautions about possible negative impacts of ranking systems. Ranking criteria have the potential for influencing decision making that could undermine college access for disadvantaged student populations. 

"The Impact of College Rankings on Institutional Decision Making: Four Country Case Studies,"  the second in a three-part series on national and international ranking systems being produced by IHEP, is available online.  

The NACUBO Staff Resource is Santiago Merea