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Reconciling the Small Effect of Rankings on University Performance with the Transformational Cost of Conformity

The University Under Pressure

ISBN: 978-1-78560-831-5, eISBN: 978-1-78560-830-8

Publication date: 5 February 2016


University rankings and metrics have become an increasingly prominent basis of student decisions, generalized university reputation, and the resources university’s attract. We review the history of metrics in higher education and scholarship about the influence of ranking on the position and strategic behavior of universities and students. Most quantitative analyses on this topic estimate the influence of change in university rank on performance. These studies consistently identify a small, short-lived influence of rank shift on selectivity (e.g., one rank position corresponds to ≤1% more student applicants), comparable to ranking effects documented in other domains. This understates the larger system-level impact of metrification on universities, students, and the professions that surround them. We explore one system-level transformation likely influenced by the rise of rankings. Recent years have witnessed the rise of enrollment management and independent educational consultation. We illustrate a plausible pathway from ranking to this transformation: In an effort to improve rankings, universities solicit more applications from students to reduce their acceptance rate. Lower acceptance rates lead to more uncertainty for students about acceptance, leading them to apply to more schools, which decreases the probability that accepted students will attend. This leads to greater uncertainty about enrollment for students and universities and generates demand for new services to manage it. Because these and other system-level transformations are not as cleanly measured as rank position and performance, they have not received the same treatment or modeling attention in higher education scholarship, despite their importance for understanding and influencing education policy.




We would like to thank Andrew Abbott for recommending that we develop the simulation detailed in the section on “The Double Bind of Prestige-Seeking”, and Christopher Takacs for a number of insightful discussions on the state of affairs in higher education.


Tutterow, C. and Evans, J.A. (2016), "Reconciling the Small Effect of Rankings on University Performance with the Transformational Cost of Conformity", The University Under Pressure (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 46), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 265-301.



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