In the flurry of university rankings released in 2019, one thing was unequivocally certain: University of Minnesota took a nosedive in nearly all leading publications. For example, the Times Higher Education world university rankings, pegged the U of M at 71 an egregious 27% plummet from 56 in 2018. Even in the Academic Ranking of World universities (ARWU) publication which has been far more liberal to us than the others, a decade long record row of marginal decline continues to transpire. Nonetheless, despite all this, the average drop has been more or less contained, but things remain far from ideal.
Before I delve deeper into presenting a long-winded analysis of why have we plunged in all these rankings, I want to first make the case for our university. The U of M has a more, if not the same, storied and celebrated history than its higher ranked peers (such as the University of Michigan or Wisconsin). It is the birthplace of chemical engineering and the recipient of thirty Nobel Prizes by affiliation (five more than both Michigan and Wisconsin). Over the years, our alumni have indisputably forged an indelible stamp on the archives of politics, engineering, literature, and business. From top level executives at big corporations to artists worldwide, we relish an unmatched reputation and prestige. In fact, we have a dedicated area at the University (called the Scholars walk) that stretches over multiple streets to showcase only part of our achievements. So, where did things go so awry? Even if I concede that we are in the same league as others, why is it that we are perpetually ranked low in education rankings?
First, to conjure up the answers to the above is a task laced in extremely difficult. The truth is that the top-tier universities are so closely knitted in their work that it really becomes an exercise in futility to find out why one university is ranked higher than the other. This problem would become more prevalent as we reach a saturation point among universities across the same conference affiliation in the future. A possible solution is to rank these universities by tiers or percentage, i.e, assign the top fifty or hundred universities the same rank followed by the next fifty ones and so on. Marginal differences in the sections used to tabulate the rankings are all quite unnecessary to include, and are deceptive due to their yearly volatility.
Second, there seems to be a less noticed problem with the way these rankings are determined. As I pried further into this, I realized that the rankings somehow serve the purpose of justifying the inflated tuition costs of top ranked universities more than conveying the overall academic value of a university to its reader. For example, the U.S. News & World Report takes into account both the student selectivity (student’s activities and ambitions) and financial resources (at the University’s disposal) which obviously vary across different universities and is scarcely reflective of the quality of education provided. It is also lurid that there is very little accountability on how the data is really gathered as universities supply the information themselves, and administrators wary of hurting their own credibility tend to paint a disingenuous picture of their colleges. As Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post puts it, “If you put junk in, you get junk out”. So, the situation is definitely quite grim and in dire need of an overhaul.
Third and last, the fluctuation in rankings every year is quite reflective of their futility. University rankings should ideally change once every five years of so as marginal changes do not really do justice to the overall reputation of a university. All in all, rankings (no matter how untrue) do matter because they provide a tool to students worldwide, especially those who have no knowledge of the American education system to gauge their own academic standing.