A Look Behind College Rankings—And What They Really Mean to Michigan

A Look Behind College Rankings—And What They Really Mean to Michigan

Michigan Alumnus cover story detail

In university communities, the appetite for rankings seems insatiable. We can’t hear enough about who is “the top,” “the highest,” “the best.” We all read them, but do we know what they represent? We unravel some of the mystery behind the rankings.

By Justin Pope, Michigan Alumnus, Early Fall 2013

In his Central Campus office, Ted Spencer grabs a copy of a publication that many in his field treat with a kind of biblical reverence: the annual U.S. News & World Report “America’s Best Colleges” guide. It can make or break administrative careers, and its publication each fall is breathlessly awaited at colleges and universities across the country.

But Spencer, U-M’s venerable executive director of undergraduate admissions, is letting out a deep, rolling laugh. Michigan does very well—though, of course, never quite as well as alumni think it should. In the 2013 rankings, the flagship Ann Arbor campus was 29th among national universities. That’s in a rankings formula that tends to favor the business model of private schools. Among public universities, Michigan was No. 4 in the 2013 rankings. (The 2014 guide will be released in early September, but there is typically little change year to year.)

But in a different ranking of global universities, also affiliated with U.S. News, Michigan is 17th.

“You see why I’m frustrated,” says Spencer, a longtime member of an advisory board to the publication, which he says sometimes listens to his suggestions and sometimes does not. How can a university be 29th in America but 17th in the world? “I ask them that question all the time. They say, ‘Well, well, well, you’re right.’ I never really get a good answer.”

Welcome to the confounding, controversial, but hugely consequential world of college rankings. When fans fight over where Brady Hoke’s football team or John Beilein’s basketball squad belongs in the latest AP Top 25, for example, there’s ample room for subjective debate. But there’s also a common, inarguable currency in those discussions: wins and losses. Michigan beats Ohio State, or it loses. But assigning a single number to everything that happens on a campus like U-M, from learning to personal growth to research—it seems foolhardy to try.

Foolhardy perhaps, but also profitable. The U.S. News rankings franchise, now 30 years old, has outlived the print magazine itself, which no longer exists. And it remains very influential—though less, it turns out, on student choices than on the behavior of institutions themselves. Now, a host of others is ranking universities in different ways, pitting them against a global pool of competition.

Many educators find these efforts an insult to the complex work of nurturing young minds. But the big trends in higher education—measuring results, accountability, value—all demand metrics and comparison. And for better or worse, rankings fill some of that void. They’re especially influential internationally at a time when Michigan and its peers play on an increasingly global stage.

“When the alumni ask me (how commonly) students choose Michigan based on rankings, the answer is not so much, but the farther away you are, the more people rely on these things to at least get started,” Spencer says. “And you have to understand, in this country, we pretty much have advertised rankings as being the way to decide on anything from the best refrigerator to the best car to the best football team and the best basketball team. Ranking things is a part of the DNA of America. It’s not going to go away.”

SO HOW DOES MICHIGAN STACK UP among the world’s great universities? It depends what you measure.

When a rankings formula rewards research power, academic reputation, and teaching, Michigan shines. The global rankings that place it at 17th …

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