Tia T. Gordon
Institute for Higher Education Policy
202 372 7204

The Intersection of College Rankings and Public Policy

New Brief Investigates the Role of Rankings in Higher Education Policymaking

Washington, D.C., Sept. 10, 2009—Against the backdrop of students returning to campuses for the start of the fall semester, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) releases a policy brief taking aim at the potential impact of college rankings on federal and state policymaking in the United States. The issue brief, The Role and Relevance of Rankings in Higher Education Policymaking, provides an overview of national postsecondary assessment efforts and notes the similarities and differences these approaches have taken in comparison to college rankings. The report’s findings are drawn from a review of the literature on college rankings and postsecondary government accountability systems as well as interviews with individuals from federal and state government agencies, trade associations, and other groups.

Fixtures in the information marketplace about colleges, rankings are one piece of information that policymakers may consider as they develop postsecondary education policy. The debate around the appropriate use of college rankings has often overlooked several key aspects; namely:

  • The role of rankings in informing public notions of college quality,
  • The data limitations inherent in rankings that restrict their usefulness to policymakers,
  • The influence of rankings on the transfer of information relevant to policy, and
  • The potential of rankings to shift institutional behaviors in ways that may negatively affect public policy goals.

"Discussions of college rankings often fail to see the influence these popular schemes may hold in the policymaking process,” said IHEP President Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D. "It is our hope that policymakers and other stakeholders will recognize the policy ramifications of turning to college rankings as a conclusive assessment of institutional and educational quality, thereby producing missed opportunities to develop policy that yields institutional success and achieves greater equity."

Developing postsecondary education policy based on ambiguous information can lead to undesired and unsuccessful results. This issue brief makes several recommendations to ensure that policymakers are aware of these potential effects and to increase the policy relevance of rankings:

  • Take precautions to ensure that college rankings are used only as part of overall system assessment efforts and not as a stand alone evaluation of colleges.
  • Support the collection of data that can be used to craft more policy-relevant college rankings, such as providing funds to higher education institutions to widely implement and publish the results of student learning assessments.
  • Leverage public attention to college rankings to shape general notions of college quality and advance equity goals.

The Role and Relevance of Rankings in Higher Education Policymaking issue brief is the final publication in a three-part series on national and international ranking systems. In May 2009, IHEP published Impact of College Rankings on Institutional Decision Making: Four Country Case Studies to examine ranking systems and their impact on the policies and practices at colleges and universities. In April 2007, College and University Ranking Systems: Global Perspectives and American Challenges, was the first monograph released to highlight the ongoing global phenomenon of college and university ranking systems and the urgent need for constructive dialogue about rankings. Additionally, an “online clearinghouse” on rankings systems was created by IHEP to support its work and provide useful information to a variety of audiences. For more information about IHEP, visit the organization’s Web site at www.ihep.org.

IHEP’s focus on national and international rankings is being supported by Lumina Foundation for Education, an Indianapolis-based private foundation striving to help people achieve their potential by expanding access to and success in education beyond high school.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is an independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world. Established in 1993, the Washington, D.C.-based organization uses unique research and innovative programs to inform key decision makers who shape public policy and support economic and social development. IHEP’s web site, www.Ihep.org, features an expansive collection of higher education information available free of charge and provides access to some of the most respected professionals in the fields of public policy and research.