LAWRENCE — From 2000 to 2012, either Harvard University or Princeton University secured to the top spot in the popular U.S. News & World Report university rankings.
It's likely not a surprise the two prestigious Ivy League universities so closely vied for the top spot, but a study that includes two University of Kansas researchers found very little movement at all among the top 50 ranked universities across those years.
This has led to a climate that inhibits diversity among the nation's universities and can have consequences for students and parents seeking the best fit and value of a college experience, according to the Public Administration Review study led by Jacob Fowles and George Frederickson. Both are professors in the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration.
"Once the rankings are established and known, the system encourages universities to start increasingly paying attention to the individual metrics and emulating the top-ranked universities," said Fowles, SPAA associate professor. "What we find as a result of this process is that it seems to lead to a lot of macro-level stability in those rankings and not a lot of very dramatic year-to-year changes."
Frederickson, distinguished professor emeritus of public affairs and president emeritus of Eastern Washington University, said the findings of the study — with co-author Jonathan Koppell — are compatible with his experience as a former university president.
"Pressures to conform and to 'look like' other universities are powerful, and rankings only increase those pressures," Frederickson said.
For the study, the researchers found that in a 10-year period, it was very difficult for universities to move outside of their quartile in the U.S. News and the Academic Rankings of World Universities.
"That stability basically implies that any university that is trying to be entrepreneurial to move up the rankings, it's really hard to do that," Fowles said. "What the rankings really are doing is continuously reinforcing privilege. The rankings themselves have become a powerful social force that largely preserves and enhances the visibility of that historical prominence."
The findings are important because major university leaders often conduct plans or goals around trying to improve dramatically in the rankings, as Frederickson said. Policymakers also often use them as a metric for judging the performance of public universities and could conceivably tie ranking performance to funding, Fowles said.
"If we want to incentivize universities to be entrepreneurial and to take risks and to adapt to the continually changing demands of what higher education is expected to do," he said, "our argument is we need to think very carefully about whether rankings are facilitating that adaptation or standing in the way of it.
"The reality is that people like rankings. Everyone wants to know who is the number one ranked basketball team, football team, or automobile. Rankings serve an informational shortcut that can be useful in decision making," Fowles said.
"But colleges and universities are diverse, and students have very different needs. To use the vehicle analogy, some people need cargo capacity, so they buy a pickup truck. Some need to transport a family, so they buy a minivan. Others want fuel economy, so they buy a Prius. So how useful would it really be to consumers if Car and Driver Magazine consolidated all of their ratings to a single ranking system that lumped all of these types of vehicles together?”
Some universities have sought to push back against the rankings in recent years by refusing to provide the data that U.S. News uses to calculate its rankings. A growing number of colleges and universities in recent years began no longer requiring ACT or SAT scores for admission.
But Fowles said for meaningful change, the top-ranked universities would likely have to lead it. However, these exact universities benefit from being at the top of the rankings, an issue that becomes especially problematic because it's so difficult for anyone else to crack the top 10.
Frederickson said the findings could bolster the case of some university leaders who are critical of catering to rankings.
"University strategic planning should be uncoupled from ranking. University strategic plans with goals that include being in the top 10 of the top 50 are misguided and bound to fail," he said. "They also show a lack of creativity. Real university change takes many years, persistence and steady leadership. Trying to move the 'ranking needle' in a year or two will not work. The forces of equilibrium are too strong."