Rankings Are Not Entirely Pointless

College application season is upon us, and recent months have seen a flurry of annual university ranking tables being published. The Times Higher Education Rankings, Shanghai Jiao Tong University Rankings, and more recently, the U.S. News ranking, are but some of the tables out there. These college rankings are subject to much criticism, with University College London President Malcolm Grant going so far as to call them “pointless.” The measures are not perfect, but they have some benefits. Specifically, they can reflect “quality” in terms of future employment prospects and satisfaction for students.

The debate regarding university league tables should prompt us to question what it is exactly we value out of education. If the point of education is to get a prestigious degree that will guarantee a good job, then the U.S. News ranking measures that. If the industry is taking “quality” college education to denote a stepping stone towards employment, then the U.S. News rankings does in fact reflect that. If the idea is to get a holistic education, or a sense of satisfaction out of university life, then university rankings grading student satisfaction can measure that.

A recent PolicyMic article by Dillon Cory proposed that universities publish comprehensive financial information about their students and graduates, noting that the financial situation of graduates will help individuals decide on their university. But such a suggestion implicitly prioritizes the employment and financial benefits we get out of education over other less quantifiable benefits. The value of education is more than just the amount we will earn after graduation.

The Guardian offered its own ranking of British universities in May, and among the measures used were “Student Satisfaction with teaching,” “Spending per student,” and “Overall satisfaction.” The individuals surveyed were mainly the consumers of higher education, and while the survey cannot measure every single aspect of education, it does measure how much value students derived out of their education. All those all-nighters spent rushing an essay deadline, nights out with friends, ego-crushing and humbling sessions with professors, and entire days spent in the library are likely to be factored in when students evaluate how satisfied with the entire college experience they are. The value of college is more than what we go on to do after that, it is also how much we enjoy the experience.

I am likely to be accused of defending league tables because I graduated from Cambridge, a university that frequently tops them, but there is some value in the measures used in such tables. The QS World University Rankings released in September assigns different weights to their indicators as well. Some 40% is based on academic reputation, 20% from citations per faculty and 20% faculty: student ratio. There have been criticisms that “academic reputation” as a measure is problematic as the best students will naturally gravitate towards the most reputable institutions, and thus elite universities continue to retain their positions by virtue of attracting the brightest – “reputation” is really measuring how attractive the school is to students. This, however, does not detract from the quality of students in the institution. Academic reputation still serves as a proxy of the intellectual environment in the university — regardless of whether or not the measure is biased.

Students are smart enough to know that the quality of education they receive does not depend on their school’s position on a table. But current tables are actually reflecting what the industry believes a quality education should provide: employment. University life is more than that, but unless students know exactly what they want to derive out of the experience, these tables do serve as a useful guide if they value the job prospects that come with a degree.

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