Adventist colleges and universities feel great pressure to attract more students in the ever-increasingly competitive environment of higher education. As they seek to distinguish themselves through accreditations, awards, and success of faculty, a new tool for showing a com-petitive edge has emerged: rankings. Various news outlets and Websites rank United States (U.S.) and international universities.
This article reviews these rankings and some of the implications for Adventist colleges and universities. Therefore, two basic questions guide this analysis: First, do rankings really measure quality? And second, should Adventist institutions use these rankings to maintain and increase enrollment? Responding to these questions may have strategic implications for strengthening Adventist higher education.
The Almighty Rankings
Over the past two decades, there has been an increasing trend to classify and rank higher education, and these classifications and rankings evaluate a wide variety of characteristics such as quality academics, cost, campus diversity, location, and research opportunities. This trend started in the United States with U.S. News and World Report (USNWR),1 and similar ranking systems have spread nationally and internationally. The first one to launch international comparisons was the Institute of Higher Education of Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China, also known as The Shanghai Rankings, which publishes the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). Other examples are the Times Higher Education Rankings (2004) and the QS Stars University Rankings (2010).2 Recently, the U.S. News and World Report has also created its own version of “World-Class Universities.” While the organization of these rankings varies in regard to the criteria they use, research productivity is a predominant measure in most of them.
These rankings have had a profound influence and a global impact amid a wide spectrum of reactions.3 First, they have been assumed to be accurate measures of a good university.4 Second, academic institutions use rankings to promote themselves. Third, policy makers have used rankings to advance policies, allocating more funding for institutions that engage in knowledge innovation to produce more jobs.5 Several government assessment policies have stressed research productivity as a defining characteristic for flagship universities that strive for prominent positions.6
Now, back to the first question, can existing rankings be valid tools for assessing a university’s quality? What are some of the inconsistencies of these rankings?
Challenges of Existing Rankings
It is important to clarify that rankings and evaluation are different concepts, although they are interconnected. When a university is assessed, it is measured against a set of benchmarks that an organization, such as an accrediting body, agrees to use for quality control. Academic programs within a university or the university on the whole may meet the assessed standards at varying degrees along a pass-fail continuum. Many of the evaluation indicators are qualitative and thus intended to guide institutions continuously toward complex views of quality. Rankings also set quantitative indicators that allow comparisons of similar institutions. These benchmarks are combined into an index to rank institutions on a scale that can range, for instance, from 0 to 100.
Although rankings may be useful in determining how well institutions perform regionally or even internationally, they are controversial and far from being neutral. What kinds of indicators are used to rank universities? Tables 1 and 2 show a global view of parameters and their power within two very influential ranking scales.
In the case of ARWU (Table 1), most of its benchmarks are highly associated with research. Unfortunately, several studies have revealed important inconsistencies in the way criteria are chosen,7 as well as inaccuracies in some indicators.8 Universities may rank very differently depending on indicators and the weight given to each of them. The Times Higher Education Ranking and the QS Stars University Rankings are also very much oriented toward research, using it as their main quality indicator, although they have also added teaching, among other factors.
In the American context, the U.S. News and World Report also has a large set of undergraduate rankings that are different in many ways from the international ones. As shown in Table 2, research is not considered in ranking institutions. The whole ranking system hinges on reputation, selectivity, resources for faculty and students, graduation and retention, and alumni connection to the university.
Choosing and setting up quality indicators can be a problem for existing university models, since rankings reflect current patterns in tertiary education, and these patterns may not align with the mission of the college or university. This is not wrong if it is presented as one possible option and not as “the” model for postsecondary education quality. Why not? Several reasons, which include the following:
1. Is this possible for all? Although universities should promote and develop research, not all them have the resources to produce the most cited and selective journals or Nobel Prize-winning faculty, since that goal requires well-equipped and well-funded institutions. This is doable for universities that publish scholarly books or various journals in English, own the most advanced labs and research equipment, attract a wide range of the best national and international researchers and students, and have a strong institutional commitment to the applied sciences. How many institutions match such a description? Even in the United States, a front-runner country in rankings, only a few universities can really compete for the top positions.9
2. What about different models of education? There are thousands of training institutions that will not develop a mission that is oriented or designed to contribute through research and scientific discoveries. Is that incorrect or falling short? It all depends on the model and purposes of the institution. Adventist universities are good examples of institutions whose missions don’t totally align with what rankings consider critical. Although research universities have a vital role in today’s economy and social climate, one may ask, Is it possible and affordable for all Adventist universities to engage in these research-intensive activities? In addition, one major problem with rankings is that they tend to facilitate institutional isomorphism (copying one another) over universities that don’t fit into this model and thus rank lower.10 This has important practical implications that may blur some of the purposes of Adventist higher education.
3. What about other indicators of performance? Most influential rankings don’t take into account community engagement, learning outcomes, and graduates’ impact on society, to mention a few. These are very important components that reflect universities’ missions. While universities are undoubtedly places that prepare professionals who can contribute to their disciplines, they should also strive to instill in their students the values that will impact their communities, improving them through not only discoveries but also technological innovation. Kronman11 argues that the vast majority of universities in the United States have lost the dimension of “the meaning of life.” That is, they have become professional training schools disregarding other important aspects of education, such as inculcating spiritual and moral values. Many of the institutions that do not appear in any ranking contribute to their communities in countless unclassified ways.12 For instance, they function as social “equalizers” by giving opportunities to poor and undereducated students to become middle-class professionals. Like many other small institutions, Adventist universities fulfill this role.
It is important to underscore that in many cases, organizations that report rankings are built as businesses. For example, magazines such as U.S. News and World Report sell more ads, get more exposure, and attract more external funding as they attract the attention of students, parents, and universities. Institutions search for ways to differentiate. Parents and students, concerned with the tuition they are about to pay, are looking for indicators that would enable them to make the best decision or, as frequently expressed, investment. Ranking managers know this and work hard to respond to these concerns. The strategies seem to work, at least for now.
How to React
What can Adventist colleges and universities do to handle these powerful forces? In order to respond to these increasing demands for evidences of quality, it is important to put rankings into perspective and see how they really affect institutions in relation to (1) students’ decisions and (2) institutional strategy.
Students’ decisions. The American Council of Education (ACE) recently released a comprehensive study13 that makes it possible to observe different patterns of students’ decision-making, and this can help colleges and universities develop proactive strategies. Some of the key findings are summarized as follows:
1. Type and quantity of students using the rankings. The report showed that according to some early studies, rankings were important for students from high-income families with Asian-American backgrounds, and whose parents have college degrees. These students were high achieving, tended to apply to several institutions, and were more likely to attend selective universities. So, the most-qualified applicants were more prone to search for top-ranked institutions. This research confirms that selective and wealthy institutions attract students who match their profile.
However, in a recent study seeking to determine how influential rankings are, the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California (UCLA), Los Angeles, revealed that only about a quarter of students reported that rankings were very important to them. In addition, the ACE report quoted several studies showing that of the 70 percent of high-achieving students who checked rankings, only about half of them made decisions based on them. It seems not even the majority of the brightest students are really guiding their choices according to the highly visible rankings.
2. What drives students’ decisions? Although rankings and prestige have an influence, the ACE report underscores the importance of educational aspirations, involvement and communication with parents, peers, networks, and financial aid offered at universities in informing students’ decisions about where to enroll. This is also true for low-income students who represent a significant percentage of those who enroll in many Adventist universities.14 This group was more likely, according to the study, to make a decision and to enroll in a school based on family support, high school counselors, university representatives, and information obtained through publications and Websites. For this group, cost and location were crucial factors in selecting a university. The same was true for highly qualified low-income students from various cultural and racial backgrounds. The availability of information and strong communication with prospective students seemed to be central to their enrolling in a program.
In short, as the ACE report asserts: “Based on newly updated data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI)—rankings are not a driving factor in student decisions on which institution to attend, and are even less relevant for students from low-income backgrounds. More salient influences include family involvement and encouragement, peer and other networks, and school- and higher education institution-based resources, including those that are semi-cus-tom-ized.”15
It is clear that rankings do help institutions, to some degree, to attract and enroll students. However, as described above, other important factors may be significantly more influential. This gives Adventist colleges and universities a window of hope.
Institutional strategy. Is there any value for Adventist education in these rankings? How might colleges and universities benefit from them? Institutions may ponder this question from at least three broad perspectives, namely: (1) accepting rankings as an accurate measure of quality; (2) rejecting rankings as irrelevant; and (3) evaluating them carefully and using their results in responsible ways. The first and second options denote a lack of understanding of how rankings work and influence people and institutions. The third option provides a wiser approach. This means that while universities may not agree with all the indicators and the overall results, they can judiciously utilize them as marketing tools. Schools can thus improve their rank or position by endorsing a pro-active strategy to advance some indicators that are aligned with their institutional mission. For instance, improving graduation and retention rates (see Table 2) is an important rating factor in the USNWR and also represents a very positive outcome for any college. The same is true of alumni giving and expansion of research. Other indicators may be more controversial, such as selectivity. For example, in the United States, every institution wants the best possible students, but screening them based mainly on ACT and SAT scores may not be quite fair. Alternative and complementary practices can produce better results in the long run if the goal is to serve the Adventist constituency. In the end, this is an institutional choice.
Another practical way for institutions to use rankings to their advantage is by reporting on brochures and webpages any aspect of an awarded or ranked program that showcases the unique characteristics of the institution. This is also useful for schools that are unable to get ranked in an overall position through a ranking system. Likewise, the use of different types of rankings derived from a wide range of quality criteria is beneficial. In other words, what is not visible here may be visible over there!
In addition, universities can develop unconventional strategies to “counterbalance” some of the negative perceptions fostered by rankings. Through a Webpage and/or promotional brochures, for instance, institutions can describe how rankings are developed and the criteria they use to assess quality. This will enable them to explain and promote the “plus” factors inherent in Adventist higher education. Some institutions may advance this as a key strategy. It can be called “in-addition quality criteria” for potential students. Some potential areas schools may want to emphasize are as follows:
1. Purpose. The mission of Adventist education is not only to prepare people for employment and economic success but also to inculcate a Christian worldview. Adventist education does not reject the spiritual dimension of learning because it is difficult to measure scientifically. It exposes students to every element of reality and seeks to develop well-rounded persons who embrace a biblical worldview cultivated through experiences such as chapel services, seminars, church services, worship services, small classes, and personal attention from professors. To successfully embrace and decide to integrate into their lives what the Bible endorses, students need a personal relationship with God. The ultimate goal is redemptive. In this process of developing character, young people embrace values that impact their subsequent professional practices and lifestyle. Accordingly, Adventist schools offer their students guidance in integrating their personal and professional values. Thus, the purpose of Adventist education can be equated to helping students to develop a worldview that influences all of their personal and professional dimensions. Public universities also look for ways to impact their students, but the focus tends to be on humanistic approaches that lead to an overemphasis on research and professional products as the future for students and society. Adventist higher education offers a significant difference!
2. Curriculum. Secular universities integrate literature and knowledge with materialistic approaches, which means that the guidance conveyed by sacred books, such as the Bible, has been neglected due to the focus on scientific and humanistic arguments. However, these works should be studied as a source of wisdom for life. In the Adventist college or university, the curriculum blends science and faith in a complementary way rather than excluding any legitimate source of information. Also, faith is integrated into all subjects taught within the curriculum, providing students with multiple opportunities to grow in their understanding of how faith impacts their decisions and choices. Involvement in academic and co-curricular activities reinforces the centrality of a student’s personal relationship with God. This approach helps students to become wiser, impacting their personal lives and professional growth. Ellen White emphasized this saying, “The strength of our college is in keeping the religious element in the ascendancy.”16 Through curriculum, Adventist colleges and universities have the opportunity to create environments where students can experience the renewal of mind and can understand and act based on biblical assumptions through a personal relationship with God.
3. Teaching. Faculty members play a key role not only through what they teach but also through what they represent in their own lives as active Christians. Thus, professors must embody the institutional mission to avoid sending double messages to students who are seeking role models based on living examples. They should mentor and counsel students throughout the learning processes, helping them to adjust to real life and encouraging them to give their hearts to Christ. At the same time, these professors ought to be highly regarded professionals who contribute to their specific professional and academic community and foster academic excellence in their students.
4. Students. Most students recognize the importance of a spiritual dimension of their lives and want to enhance it through interactions with instructors, friends, and cocurricular experiences such as worship and chapel services offered by their college or university. Higher education enables students to modify their understanding of personal and professional needs and to adjust to new challenges. All this happens in the context of the disciplinary field they have chosen, enriching their future career performance. Students should leave the university with a clear sense of personal mission based on a biblical worldview and a commitment to service within their professions. This will give graduates a moral backbone that is essential for current society and the economy, as well as an involvement with the gos-pel commission.17
5. Interaction with culture. Adventist colleges and universities must strive to position themselves as regional, national, or even international advocates for a proactive vision of the paradigm they embrace. By producing positive changes in students and communities, universities become organizations that have scientific and social impact. Ultimately, these institutions become a counterculture that seeks to influence all dimensions of human endeavor.
All of these are some of the real contributions that most Adventist colleges and universities make and may, in many cases, go unnoticed by potential students and constituents. So, with examples and cases to illustrate the “in-addition quality criteria,” institutions can better demonstrate quality.
Although the number of rankings is growing and these comparisons are impacting Adventist colleges and universities all over the world, there is also evidence that institutions can develop their own models and strategies for attracting new students. The pressure to “fit in” is great and can distort the essential paradigms and mission that provide the rationale for operating a college or university, such as the ones operated by the Adventist Church.18 There is a need to make explicit how rankings can serve as strong and strategic marketing tools to connect with prospective students. Perhaps the biggest challenge Adventist colleges and universities face is to know precisely how to deal with pressures to “align” with the dominant trends and remain relevant without compromising their essential features.
This article has been peer reviewed.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) began its annual college ranking in the early 1980s. For more information, see “About U.S. News & World Report,” U.S. News & World Report: http://www.usnews.com/info/features/about-usnews?int=a60f09.
- Times Higher Education World University Rankings and QS Stars University Rankings were partners, but they split in 2010, and QS Stars has started its own classification.
- Simon Marginson and Marijk van der Wende, “To Rank or to Be Ranked: The Impact of Global Rankings in Higher Education,” Journal of Studies in International Education 11:3/4 (Fall/Winter 2007): 306-329. doi:10.1177/1028315307303544.
- E. Anthon Eff, Christopher C. Klein, and Reuben Kyle, “Identifying the Best Buys in U.S. Higher Education,” Research in Higher Education 53:8 (December 2012): 860-887. doi:10.1007/s11162-012-9259-2.
- Andrejs Rauhvargers, Global University Rankings and Their Impact: EUA Report on Rankings (Brussels: European University Association, 2011).
- Anthony F. J. van Raan, “Fatal Attraction: Conceptual and Methodological Problems in the Ranking of Universities by Bibliometric Methods,” Scientometrics 62:1 (2005): 133-143.
- Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman, “Graduation Rates and Accountability: Regressions versus Production Frontiers,” Research in Higher Education 49:1 (February 2008): 80-100. doi:10.1007/s11162-007-9063-6; John F. Burness, “The Rankings Game: Who’s Playing Whom?” The Chronicle of Higher Education 55:2 (September 2008): A80; James E. Eckles, “Evaluating the Efficiency of Top Liberal Arts Colleges,” Research in Higher Education 51:3 (May 2010): 266-293. doi:10.1007/s11162-009-9157-4.
- Mu-Hsuan Huang, “A Comparison of Three Major Academic Rankings for World Universities: From a Research Evaluation Perspective,” Journal of Library and Information Studies 9:1 (June 2011): 1-25.
- Ellen Hazelkorn, Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World-Class Excellence, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke, GBR: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
- Gustavo Gregorutti, Following the Path from Teaching to Research University: Increasing Knowledge Productivity (Newcastle, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011).
- Anthony T. Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007).
- For more details, see Catherine Rampell, “Top Colleges for Producing Graduates Who Make the World a Better Place,” The Washington Post (September 11, 2014): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/rampage/wp/2014/09/11/top-colleges-for-producing-graduates-who-make-the-world-a-better-place/?utm_term=.e954a45f99a1.
- The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), part of the Higher Education Research Council, has conducted the most comprehensive, empirical national longitudinal study of American higher education, collecting data from over 1,900 institutions, 15 million students, and more than 300,000 faculty, since 1973 (Lorelle L. Espinosa, Jennifer R. Crandall, and Malika Tukibayeva, Rankings, Institutional Behavior, and College and University Choice Framing the National Dialogue on Obama’s Ratings Plan [Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 2014]).
- Ibid., 2.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948), vol. 5, 14.
- George R. Knight, “Adventist Education and the Apocalyptic Vision, Part II,” The Journal of Adventist Education 69:5 (Summer 2007): 4-9.
- Gregorutti, Following the Path.