(Not) all rankings are bad


Standard university rankings may or may not be bollocks, but they are a destructive force.

This is because of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

What a world we live in, that the country’s largest and most wealthy universities have collectively decided to cede institutional power to the editors at the US News and World Report.

A new national ranking came out, and they found that my campus is #2 in the country! So maybe I’ll start caring about rankings? wink. But I do think it’s worthwhile to see what we might learn from The Economic Mobility Index. It ranks “schools [that] enroll the highest proportion of students from low- and moderate-backgrounds AND provide them with a strong return on their educational investment.” Here’s a thread from one of the authors with a bit of an explainer.

It turns out that the top 10 are all regional public universities, and all of them are HSIs. They’re also concentrated in the state university systems of California (6) and Texas (2), and the others are in the City University of New York system (2). This economic mobility index is saying that there is something special about the California State University system, that we excel at making differences in the lives of our students.

There have been other indices that measure how universities improve the incomes of their students, which are typically a hodgepodge of regional public universities and very prestigious high-endowment institutions. They are such a mixed bag because they are counting school that turn relatively wealthy people into extremely wealthy people, and can also emphasize the impact on low-income students even if these campuses only enroll a small fraction of low-income students. (For example, you can say that going to Harvard will help a low-income student earn more money when they graduate, but could you say with a straight face that Harvard is in the business of improving the economic status of low-income students?)

One of the main factors in university rankings is “selectivity.” Which you could call exclusivity, or which you could call inaccessibility. When campuses are “impacted” that means that they need to restrict access to qualified people who want to get into those programs. One thing I absolutely love about my current employer is that we are doing everything we can to be as accessible as possible. It looks like among the 23 campuses in the California State University System, that we are the only one that does not have any impacted programs whatsoever. This is a point of pride, and it’s part of our mission to serve those who historically have not had access to higher education. We might be forced to declare impaction at some point in the future, but if that happens, it’s not something that we would be proud of, even if it would make us look better in the eyes of the people who pay attention to the US News and World Report rankings.

What I like about this Economic Mobility Index (other than that it placed CSUDH at #2 in the whole nation) is that it looks at the entire student body and is evaluating the bulk effect of the institution. Our current president has been touting our university’s goal of becoming a “Model Urban University,” and I think this is a good indicator that we are well on our way in this journey. There are a lot of things that we need to do better, and don’t have nearly enough resources to do half of what we are trying to do. There are a lot of students on our campus who aren’t getting the support that they deserve. So it’s nice to know that trying hard actually does matter and does result high quality measurable impact. I feel like we take a lot more Ls than Ws, so this index puts all of those Ws into context.

By the way, if you’re in the market for making a philanthropic donation that will demonstrably impact the lives of students at a top-ranking institution, drop me a line, and I can hook you up.

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