Kuntzman: Quality higher education is more than rankings

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Columnist

In 2017, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen claimed that half of all American colleges would go bankrupt over the next 10 to 15 years. Whether or not his prediction will come true remains to be seen, but several academic institutions are currently experiencing ill-portending financial issues. Corinthian Colleges declared bankruptcy in 2015, while others, such as Goucher College and Gordon College, announced that they would be eliminating certain academic programs in part to save money. 

In the midst of these crises for universities, others, such as New York University (NYU) and Case Western Reserve University, have been able to add new programs in data science and origins science. For students at these universities or those interested in attending, this is favorable, but it does call to question why there is such a dramatic split in the spending abilities of colleges.

One noteworthy difference between the growing and shrinking colleges is their rankings. CWRU and NYU both rank relatively highly among their category of academic institution at 40th and 29th in the nation respectively according to U.S. News & World Report. On the other hand, Goucher and Gordon’s ranks were both in the triple digits for their category. The U.S. News & World Report considers many useful factors, such as colleges’ retention rates and faculty resources, but 20 percent of its grading system relies on an extremely flawed factor: expert opinion, or how good an academic institution is perceived as being. Their data is collected from surveys of people working in higher education, such as deans and provosts, but this category is extremely subjective and may cause new universities to be ranked lower than they should be. Fifty-seven percent of the survey’s recipients never responded. 

A university’s rank can help reinforce its reputation, which can have a huge impact on how many applications a college receives. The Ivy League, Stanford and MIT saw an average increase of 28.28 percent in the number of applicants for the class of 2015 to the class of 2023. This is a good indicator of stable enrollment for these schools; however, this trend is inconsistent with the national average. Data from 2011 to 2019 actually shows a steady decrease in college enrollment across the United States. 

This decrease is projected to continue, but what is most striking about the models are how disproportionately college enrollment is expected to decrease among different types of academic institutes. The “Elite 50,” as the U.S. News & World Report calls them, are expected to have fairly stable enrollment and continue to see an increasing number of applications. The next 50 universities will likely see a slight decrease, while the following colleges and universities will experience more severe enrollment losses. 

It’s incredible to see how powerful of an impact assigning a school a number has.

As enrollment drops, colleges, especially those with small endowments, will likely have to start reducing or merging their programs to compensate for lost tuition revenue. Since many ranking systems, including U.S. News & World Report, consider a college’s financial resources when deciding its rank, this would likely affect lower ranking colleges more than others, and create a negative feedback loop where the lower ranked colleges get progressively worse. 

It’s sad to see that higher education has fallen to this state. So many decisions are made based on numbers calculated with flawed formulas instead of considering colleges in a holistic manner. There are many aspects of colleges, such as traditions and student happiness, that are hard to rank and that no amount of money or prestige can generate.

 A college doesn’t have to be a top 50 school to provide students with a great education and experience, and the current ranking systems don’t reflect this. These arbitrary claims of prestige create an environment where colleges are forced to fight for higher rankings in order to survive that hurts higher education at large. If college rankings continue to exist, they acknowledge that there are aspects of colleges that can’t be ranked and work to eliminate sources of bias in their ranking criteria.