While popular rankings of colleges and universities — like that of U.S. News and World Report — have always been top secret, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, working with a team of Reed College researchers, managed to “crack the code.” And, as Academic Influence tells it, an unhappy truth emerged:
What troubled Gladwell is that schools like Dillard University and Reed College could never, given the way college rankings were set up, receive the recognition they deserved. The whole ranking system was rigged against them. Gladwell focused especially on Dillard University, an HBCU [historically Black college or university] in New Orleans. By making its mission to serve underserved populations, Dillard was, in effect, getting penalized by U.S. News & World Report, which puts a premium in its rankings on schools that have a lot of money and spend it lavishly. In fact, the U.S. News rankings have a long history of penalizing schools that focus on making education more accessible to those with little or no money.Academic Influence Staff, “Best Colleges and Universities by Academic Stewardship” at Academic Influence
It’s a problem but the only solution is a different ranking system that is not inadvertently weighted in favor of lavish endowments. The staff at Academic Influence, after listening to Gladwell’s podcast on the topic, collected as The Myths of Meritocracy, decided to take on that challenge using its Influence Ranking Engine.TM In 2020, the team had developed the Concentrated Influence metric, which controls for sheer size. But it was not until this year that it was able to roll out the Academic Stewardship metric: “a ratio calculated with a formula that quantifies how much academic impact a college achieves, given its overall resources. Think of it as comparing a school’s academic bang to its institutional bucks.” (Forbes:)
And what did they find?
The most obvious thing that leaps out at you is this: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) crushed it in this ranking. In all the earlier experimental versions of the Academic Stewardship metric that we formulated, including the one we finally settled on, HBCUs kept coming up at the top, with Fisk University in particular dominating the ranking at the #1 spot.
Three HBCUs appear in the top five of this ranking, and five appear in the top fifteen.Academic Influence Staff, “Best Colleges and Universities by Academic Stewardship” at Academic Influence
Intuitively, of course, it makes sense. Historically black institutions have a long history of doing more with less. But demonstrating the statistical effect of lavish vs. meagre endowments on rankings required a new ranking system.
Former university president Michael T. Nietzel comments,
This new ranking approach deserves further attention and possible eventual modifications in the methodology. However, for now, it draws much needed attention to how academically influential a given college or university is with the resources it has at hand. And it shows that when smaller schools with fewer resources invest them in people and programs wisely, they can do proportionately better in producing academic influence than large, wealthy schools. Academic Stewardship recognizes colleges not for their influence per se but for their effectiveness in producing influence with limited means.Michael T. Nietzel, “Academic Stewardship: A New Ranking Of College And University Effectiveness” at Forbes (March 31, 2022)
Put another way, if a student wants a solid grounding in a discipline, it can typically be had for much less than Ivy League tuition. So the question then becomes: How much is the name of the institution alone worth to the student’s career plans? Academic Influence’s new Stewardship Engine can focus the discussion for students and their financial backers in a new and constructive way.
You may also wish to read:
How Erik Larson hit on a method for deciding who is influential. The author of The Myth of Artificial Intelligence decided to apply an algorithm to Wikipedia — but it had to be very specific. Many measures of influence depend on rough measures like numbers of hits on pages. Larson realized that influence is subtler than that.
Should you choose a college based on well-known rankings?
What goes into those rankings? Big Data has enabled newer ranking systems that may tell you more of what you need to know. Analysts interviewed don’t say that rankings are useless but rather that students should evaluate several — and they should keep Goodhart’s Law in mind.