by Daniel L. Bennett
Our friend Clifford Adelman made the comment at our summit on assessing university performance last month that rankings belong in the sports page. At the time I thought that he was just being boisterous and providing some comedic relief, but recently I've been pondering this and Mr. Adelman just may be on to something. College rankings and intercollegiate athletics are similar in some respects, notably with regards to the benefits and costs that they accrue and impose on colleges.
Let's start with the benefits, which are mostly auxiliary in nature. CCAP released a report in April that describes some of the benefits that intercollegiate athletics add to institutions and individuals. For one, athletic success can lead to national exposure, which in turn can increase the number and quality of applicants to a particular school. A strong (or improvement in) academic ranking (such as the US News or Forbes/CCAP) can also lead to an increase in the number and quality of applicants.
Second, athletics have the potential to build solidarity among a university community --connecting students, staff, faculty alumni and neighbors. Institutional rankings can have the same effect. After all, we all want to be proud of the institution that granted us a degree - athletics and rankings provide a rallying point.
Next, a successful athletics program has the potential to attract additional donors. A strong ranking can do the same. Lastly, there is evidence that graduates of colleges with successful athletic programs may benefit in the job market with higher starting salaries (see the regression results in the the above mentioned CCAP report). Students aim to gain entry to the best ranked college possible because it is believed that the higher ranked a school, the better post-graduation opportunities.
Now, let's turn to the costs. Operating a big-time athletics program is financially expensive. Very few (I believe 19 out of 119 in 2006) Division I schools operate on a surplus. The majority of colleges cross-subsidize their athletics programs. In other words, sports are a cost driver. College rankings, at least the US News Rankings, are also a cost driver, but in an indirect way. Statistical analysis, included in CCAP's College Rankings report, indicate that there is a significant positive correlation between spending and the US New's ranking components. My comrade, Richard Vedder, likes to jokingly say that our friend Bob Morse is the most influential person in American higher education due to the fact that many schools are inextricably bound to make decisions based on the effect that it will have on their US News ranking.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of both college rankings and sports. But have these two activities infiltrated higher education so far that institutions forgot that their mission is to seek and disseminate knowledge? Sure they are fun, but are institutional priorities unduly influenced by college rankings? Perhaps college rankings do belong in the sports page, rather than on the cover. After all, they do share many of the same auxiliary characteristics as athletics.