Ignore the Rankings

Embracing the teaching-centered faculty model I explained in my last post would require a major shift in perspective for many colleges and universities. One of the things that would have to change is the constant eye toward national rankings. This has become, for private colleges and universities and too many state schools, the post-secondary equivalent of teaching to the test. Having been designed to clarify the relative strength of various schools, national ranking systems (U.S. News and World ReportPrinceton Review, etc.) have begun to distort the behavior of these schools, undermining their central mission.

One problem is that the rankings only take into account a narrow set of quantifiable statistics. Measurements of the caliber of incoming students (like high school GPA and SAT scores) are useful but a bit self-reinforcing: using the caliber of incoming students as a reflection of the school’s quality simply means that schools with already strong reputations will continue to rank high. Other factors, like per-student endowment say much more about the school’s fundraising success than the caliber of education received by undergraduates.


The larger problem is that the rankings don’t include a good way to account for the central purpose of these institutions: teaching. The two data points most often referenced in this regard are only tenuously related to the quality of instruction: (a) class size and (b) ratio of classes taught by faculty with a terminal degree. In theory, smaller classes mean better instruction. But I expect most of us have had the inverse experience often enough to know that this is not an absolute rule.

The second criterion has two main flaws. First, as I’ve described previously, a Ph.D. or equivalent is certainly no guarantee of quality teaching. Second, one of the dirty secrets of large research universities is that most of the actual teaching is done by graduate student teaching assistants, even if full professors are the ‘instructor of record.’ While professors commonly lecture to large audiences, it is the teaching assistants who lead smaller discussion sections, meet with students about their exams (mostly graded by TAs), and work with them on projects like research papers and lab reports. It is actually pretty difficult as a first or second year student at a large university to get to know a professor.

And the focus on ‘classes taught by faculty with a terminal degree’ can actually be a detriment to good teaching. A university committed to keeping that ratio high will be forced to shut out advanced graduate students from teaching their own courses. So while they are taking care of most of the one-on-one work of helping students learn the material, they get few opportunities to take the lead in structuring courses or be innovative in course design until they finish their degree and enter the professoriat. This is just one more way in which teacher training is undervalued in the modern research university.

Ignoring the rankings system to focus instead of promoting quality teaching will mean giving up the quest for national greatness, at least for the short term. Increasing the quality of instruction will take time. And because teaching quality is difficult to quantify and compare, schools will have to depend on different ways of spreading their improved reputation. The first step will be re-focusing their attention on serving local communities and states. Students that come from and remain in the immediate community will become the prime evangelists for an improving institution. Fortunately for large state schools, the internet age provides plenty of means for that local reputation to spread nationally without relying on rankings publications.

In the long run, schools that exit the national rankings race in favor of a focus on good teaching may come out far ahead of their peer institutions. In the meantime, they can do a better job fulfilling their central mission while cutting peripheral costs.


This is the fourth of a series of posts on keeping education costs down. It is the third part of a discussion of re-emphasizing teaching at the post-secondary level. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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