The highly competitive college rankings game began in 1983, when U.S. News & World Report published their first set of results. The list was based on a single survey sent to 1,308 college presidents — hardly a scientific endeavor. Before that, rankings were limited to specialized areas of research and not widely released to the public.
Since then, achieving a prime position has become a high-stakes battle for many institutions.
In her latest book, “Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World Class Excellence,” Dublin Institute of Technology professor Dr. Ellen Hazelkorn explores the phenomenon.
“Rankings do challenge complacency. They force all institutions to look at their performance and seek to improve,” she says. “But it’s important to set the appropriate targets and metrics and not simply adopt those developed by commercial companies for their own purposes. I’m constantly amazed by the way policymakers and university leaders set targets according to rankings, even though they know that rankings do not measure what is important about higher-education quality.”
Hazelkorn is no stranger to number-crunching. As the dean of the graduate research school at DIT, she’s one of the leading authorities on how and why we process information. “Global rankings usually rely on measuring research activity, [which is] most accurate for the biosciences,” she says. “It’s very difficult to measure educational quality, and the types of statistics used are all problematic. As Einstein is purported to say, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’”