What If We Changed How College Rankings Work?

college rankings listI read an article in the New York Times recently that addressed a proposed new international testing system for colleges and universities that, as they put it, “will either be the next big thing in higher education or a pointless, expensive rankings exercise that will be used to criticize faculty at hard-pressed colleges and universities.” It’s a good article, and you should probably read it, because it gives a good overview of how the international testing system would work, and how it might end up being good or bad. You can also take a gander at the OECD page describing the details of the feasibility study on such a testing system if you want to better understand exactly what they’re trying to do. But for now, we’re going to try to simplify.

What Would A School Grading System Measure?

In the US, many of us look at college rankings (like US News) when we’re choosing a college.  Things like cost, enrollment, acceptance rate, graduation rate, SAT scores, and class size are taken into consideration. But what are we looking for?

In large part, we’re trying to ensure that we’re going to get a high quality education for our money, and also to ensure we’re going to be attending a school where we can thrive. These two things may mean very different things for different people, so keep in mind that scaling measurements like these to look at schools across the globe – who operate in different systems of education, different access to education, and in different languages – is likely to be difficult.

The proposed testing system covers three areas: economics, engineering and generic skills. But since what we really are looking at is the quality of the education a student will receive there, how can we measure that?

College Rankings In Theory

So what would you look at to determine if the education you’ll receive at a school is ‘quality’ or not? Here are a few things we’d like to know:

  • Do actual teachers teach my classes, or will I be stuck with a graduate student?
  • Retention rate: how many students transfer?
  • Is there any emphasis placed on practical skills?
  • Are there strong connections to the community for students to gain practical skills (like in an internship setting)?
  • What percentage of students acquire jobs in their field within one year post-graduation? Two years?
  • What percentage of students are accepted into graduate school? What percentage apply to graduate school?

What else would you look for? We’d like to hear your thoughts on what makes an education ‘quality’!