A review of current research suggests that rankings influence institutional decision making in the following areas: strategic positioning and planning, staffing and organization, quality assurance, resource allocation and fundraising, and admissions and financial aid. Rankings impact higher education decision making in the profiled countries in many ways that are consistent with research on the topic; however, the interviews suggest some nuances and unique approaches that could prompt new uses for rankings at U.S. institutions.
Officials interviewed for this report offered many valid criticisms of rankings: that too much importance is given to rankings over other institutional assessments and practices, emphasizing institutional rankings decreases access for underserved students, and rankings skew institutional resources to favor research over teaching. However, the findings highlight a number of recommendations for how institutions can leverage rankings to do their work in innovative ways.
Improved data-based decision making
Higher education institutions, especially those in the United States, are increasingly called on to use data to inform their decision making and to document student and institutional success. Rankings can prompt institutional discussions about what constitutes success and how the institution can better document and report that success.
Increased participation in broader discussions about measuring institutional success
Rankings can encourage institutions to move beyond their internal conversations to participate in broader national and international discussions about new ways of capturing and reporting indicators of success. The participation of individual institutions in these discussions will become an increasingly important way for articulating how rankings can be used to measure and improve institutional practices.
Improved teaching and learning practices
While the case study institutions continue to point to their changing practices that alter input indicators— increasing selectivity, favoring research over teaching, and strengthening the faculty profile—a number of institutions are also reporting changes to practices directly related to student learning and success. Institutions that use their rankings to prompt change in areas that directly improve student learning experiences demonstrate that rankings can lead to positive change in teaching and learning practices.
Identification and replication of model programs
For some institutions in the study, the peer benchmarking function of rankings is leading to identification and replication of model programs. Institutions should be open to using rankings to identify and share best practices.
Increased institutional collaboration
Rankings are often perceived as instigators of competition among institutions, but the case studies suggest that they also foster collaboration, such as research partnerships, student and faculty exchange programs, and alliances. Rankings can be important starting points to identify institutions with which to collaborate and partner.
In highlighting ways ranking systems can positively impact institutional decision making, this issue brief also underscores the continued need for attention to potential negative effects of rankings. These include the degree to which rankings—and an emphasis on developing world-class universities—undermine college access for disadvantaged student populations; an unbalanced emphasis on research over teaching; the ratio between full-time and adjunct faculty; the improvement of key rankings variables as a substitute for comprehensive, institution-generated strategic planning; and the funding of world-class institutions at the expense of institutions that further other national goals.
Institutions should consider the concerns raised about the effects of rankings as catalysts for direct policy actions to mitigate potential negative impacts. College rankings are an entrenched phenomenon around the world. This brief documents positive and negative institutional responses to rankings, and suggests ways institutions can leverage them to improve internal and external practices. It can be a starting point for institutions that are seeking new tools for institutional change and new ways of responding to their rankings in national and international systems.
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