The rankings game for UW

The U.S. News & World Report annual college rankings were recently released. Published annually since 1985, these are primarily designed to rank universities based on the undergraduate experience. These rankings are widely reported in the media.

The U.S. News rankings are only one of a growing number of college and university rankings. This “rankings game” is regularly denounced by college presidents who validly claim that it’s hard to rank a diverse set of colleges and universities on a single linear scale.  The University of Wisconsin-Madison — a place that offers 134 undergraduate majors, with 14 schools and colleges and has a mission of both research and teaching — is very different from a small liberal arts school with 1,000 students.

Most rankings utilize numbers like graduation rates, time to completion, class size, etc., which are weighted in some way to achieve a final number. Those of us who lead big public institutions are particularly concerned because there is something of a bias towards smaller schools in many rankings, with little value given for breadth or scope of educational opportunities. In the end, all of these rankings are at best a very incomplete measure of the undergraduate experience that any student is likely to have on a specific college campus.

But parents and students are often overwhelmed with information about prospective schools. Rankings are commonly used as a shorthand guide. And the rankings make the news, because everybody likes a horse race.  I’ll bet that even those who denounce the ratings still peek at them to see who’s ahead. So long as these ratings are widely reported and used, we need to take them seriously if we want to attract top students to UW.

I’ve asked some of our campus colleagues who routinely complete surveys on behalf of our campus to look at how the major rankings are compiled and to report back on whether and how we might improve our standing in the ones that matter most.

This group looked at more than 40 rankings and guidebooks that feature UW-Madison. They found there are some things we can do to make sure that UW receives as high a rating as possible.

For instance, when our faculty or staff write papers, make presentations or submit proposals, we need to make sure they always use the proper name of our university. The team found more than 1,000 different variants of the university’s name, many simply because of spelling mistakes.  For rankings that give weight to faculty publications and research activity, getting this right matters. For instance (and somewhat alarmingly), 4 percent of published work by UW-Madison faculty seems have no university name listed at all.

Making sure that we get credit for what we’re already doing is important. But we also need to make sure that we’re getting the message out on some behaviors that really matter. For instance, one input into some of the major rankings is the percent of alumni who make a monetary contribution to the institution in a recent past year.  This is assumed to be a measure of alumni satisfaction with their education. So, when alums tell me that their gift would be too small to matter, they’re wrong! The more alumni who give — at whatever level — will raise our visibility to prospective students.

Another input into some of the major rankings is faculty and staff pay levels. As most people here at UW know, we’ve fallen behind on this measure since there have been almost no state pay increases in the past five years. Addressing this concern is one of my highest priorities, in order to attract and retain the best faculty. This can improve our rankings as well.

I don’t want to spend too much time on these rankings, but we shouldn’t ignore them, either. Technology puts the ranking information at the fingertips of parents and prospective students. A higher rank can prompt more good potential students to think about UW and come for a campus visit, which is one of our most effective recruiting tools. That means we should make sure that the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows up in the list of top-ranked schools.