Rankings, Relevance and the Future of the Regional Public University

The New York Times ran an interesting article today about the proliferation of college rankings and the increasing importance of outcomes–especially post-graduation employment and starting salary–in these rankings.

But first a tangent and semi-rant: Do you ever read the Higher Education supplement (Education Life I believe it is called) that the NYT runs about once a month or so? Do you ever get the same feeling I get? That according to the articles (and ads) in the Higher Education supplement, higher education in America is pretty much the sole province of prestigious private liberal arts colleges or massive R-1 universities? That students going to college are all 18-22 years old, and all are planning to be residential full-time students. That the biggest struggle students face is which paid internship they are going to take next or whether they should stay at Harvard or drop out and develop their start-up? The lead article in the last edition: Finals clubs for the rich and privileged.

OK–so a little resentment at the establishment. I am from the Midwest–flyover country–so it’s permitted.

There is, however, more than resentment here–what readers get is a very selective view of what higher education is like today, and this very selective view is the one that resonates with the audience for the NYT (still considered  the unofficial newspaper of record for the US, and still the publication that probably is most read (or at least followed) by the powerful in political and business circles), and then the view that helps shape what we think about when we think about higher education. Comm scholar geek break here: Reminder of what agenda setting theory tells us – mediated messages don’t tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about.

So what does that have to do with us? Back to the NYT article on rankings, with a little side-trip to a past Chronicle of Higher Education article on the future of the regional public university.

The rankings game–though admittedly still trying to improve–uses metrics and measurements that privilege the full-time student at the full-time school: Four year graduation rates, and initial salaries upon graduation. The part-time student (the second degree student, the transfer student, the returning adult student, the working two jobs to afford school and help out the family student) is largely invisible or, based on the metrics, a drag on rankings.

But that student is also more the representative of the future of the public regional university. We are where students come for a great education–even if they aren’t 18 years old, only attending school and living on campus. Regional public universities are just that–we serve our public, and that means we serve the students in our geographical areas even if their life circumstances may make it more likely that rankings based on a traditional stereotype of the college student mean we will not be as highly ranked as we should be.

With all of the attention being paid to higher education nationally and locally (you should all be watching closely what is happening in Trenton with a series of bills about higher education in New Jersey), how we are covered in the media and how the rankings promote one vision of higher education matters. Perception shapes reality, and the perception right now is that public higher education is not as strong as it should be. We need to be fighting for the future of the regional public university.

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