A new website focused on providing the WSU community with greater context around the complexities of college rankings has been launched by the Office of Strategy, Planning and Analysis.
Featuring an array of domestic and international assessments, the website represents a concerted effort to provide more transparency about the university’s standings. The site is part of an overall effort by WSU to become better acquainted with how some of the most influential higher education rankings are determined. Although no ranking is perfect, as WSU strives for continual improvement, rankings are a useful tool.
“This website and the related ongoing work are the building blocks of a comprehensive conversation about the proper role of rankings and the importance of data,” Chris Hoyt, vice president of strategy, planning, and analysis, said. “We cannot remove ourselves from conversations about rankings, and instead have to cast a critical eye toward the goals we want to accomplish based on our priorities as a land grant institution.”
An eye on transparency
The idea came out of conversations in the spring with members of the Faculty Senate, with then-Chair Christine Horne suggesting that an informational website could answer questions and help stakeholders better understand WSU’s strengths and areas for improvement. The website includes assessments based on information provided by WSU as well as those from organizations that collect data from publicly available sources such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
“We’re not making value judgements about what’s a good or bad ranking methodology,” Hoyt said. “Rather, we’re including a variety of assessments that weigh criteria differently to give our communities a better idea of what goes into these rankings and where we stand.”
WSU’s new ranking website features information on an array of organizations that compare universities both in the U.S. and across the world based on factors such as faculty accomplishments, enrollment, graduation and retention rates, and engagement among alumni, among many others. Some, like the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development survey, are based on data submitted by institutions around on research and development expenditures. Other assessments make determinations in part based on qualitative assessments and perceptions among leaders across higher education.
Several assessments heavily weigh quantitative measures that the WSU system has strategically prioritized, such as increasing R&D expenditures by 5% annually, or efforts to reduce the retention gaps present among first-generation and historically marginalized student groups.
The work on these and related priorities is paying off in terms of better results, but it isn’t always enough to overcome other, more subjective variables that factor into assessments.
Better understanding prominent rankings
A growing contingent of universities and experts across higher education are calling into question the value and equity of subjective assessments, charging that prestige should matter less in a ranking compared to tangible outcomes. These critiques are being acknowledged by some of the most prominent organizations in the field, such as U.S. News and World Reports.
USNWR is not only among the most well-known and cited rankings within the US, it is also one of the most complicated in terms if the amount of information submitted by the institution and the methodology used to obtain the rankings. In contrast, many other rankings request only basic information from the institution, or rely on publicly available institution to calculate rankings.
WSU sends US News hundreds of data points, which the organization whittles down to 16 to 20 metrics that factors into a college’s ranking. In her role as interim executive director of Institutional Research, Stephanie Kane is closely monitoring these changes and recently sat in on a presentation from US News about how it is adjusting its criteria.
Four of its previous metrics – alumni giving, high school class rank, class size and percent of faculty with terminal degrees – were eliminated from the upcoming 2023 Best Colleges ranking, for instance. These factors previously accounted for approximately 16% of a school’s total score, though it remains unclear how remaining metrics are being reweighed for this year’s ranking.
Another issue is how colleges like WSU that don’t admit students based on ACT and SAT scores report that fact to US News. Last year only 11% of incoming students submitted test scores, with that data being reported to US News. This year, following the required methodology for test-blind institutions, WSU will no longer report test scores to either US News or the Federal government, and it’s uncertain how that change will impact this year’s rankings.
In recognition of the prominence of U.S. News’ Best College ranking, WSU recently established a task force dedicated to better understanding its methodology to ensure its standings and achievements are properly reflected. A report from the chair of the committee is expected to be released to the wider university community later this month.