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Reaching for the Brass Ring: The U.S. News & World Report Rankings and Competition

Ronald G. Ehrenberg
2002 Review of higher education (Print)  
Excerpt] The behavior of academic institutions, including the extent to which they collaborate on academic and nonacademic matters, is shaped by many factors. This paper focuses on one of these factors, the U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) annual ranking of the nation's colleges and universities as undergraduate institutions, exploring how this ranking exacerbates the competitiveness among American higher education institutions. After presenting some evidence on the importance of the USNWR
more » ... e of the USNWR rankings to both public and private institutions at all levels along the selectivity spectrum, I describe how the rankings actually are calculated, then discuss how academic institutions alter their behavior to try to influence the rankings. While some of the actions an institution may take to improve its rankings may also make sense educationally, others may not and, more importantly, may not be in the best interest of the American higher educational system as a whole. In the final section of the paper, I ask whether the methodology that USNWR uses to calculate its rankings prevents institutions from collaborating in ways that make sense both educationally and financially. My answer is, by and large, no, although I indicate that USNWR could encourage even more such collaborations by fine-tuning its rankings system. In short, although USNWR rankings cause institutions to worry more about the peers with which they compete than would otherwise be the case, the rankings should not prevent institutions from working productively towards common goals. Put another way, USNWR is not the "evil empire" and academic institutions should not blame USNWR for their failure to collaborate more. The American system of higher education is the envy of the rest of the world. A mixed system of over 3,600 public and private institutions, it is noted for its competitiveness. An institution's geographical location, selectivity, size, whether it is church related, the degrees that it offers, and the range of its curriculum, determine the specific institutions that are its competitors. Against these competitors, institutions vie in a variety of waysfor undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, for faculty members, for research dollars, for state and federal appropriations, for private philan-
doi:10.1353/rhe.2002.0032 fatcat:yj2hxqujqfbzlefpgtxr347phy