Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rankings of universities: vintages and coordination of expectations

US News and World Report has published its annual ranking of American universities. One thing that the rankings make clear is that, while they may move around a bit from year to year (and the precise rankings are not so informative), it takes a long time to rise to the top.

This year the first place goes to the oldest American university, founded in 1636, and spots 2 and 3 go to universities established in 1746 (as the College of New Jersey), and 1701. Two universities that opened more than a century later, in 1861, and 1891 , are tied for 4th place. The two universities tied for 6th are of different vintages, 1891 and 1755, as are the three tied for 8th place, 1754, 1838, and 1892. The top dozen ranks are filled out by universities open for business since 1769, 1855, and 1856.

At number 17, Rice University, opened in 1912, seems to be the highest ranked university on the list to have begun in the 20th century.

So, while ranking is far from perfectly correlated with age (which is in turn correlated with wealth, among other things), a university that wants to rise to the top of these rankings must take a long view.

It would be good to know more about how rankings (and changes in rankings, especially changes of more than a few places) influence the success of universities in attracting students and faculty. Compared to fundamentals, the rankings themselves shouldn't do much (although they are correlated with features that make a university a desirable place to study and teach). But rankings may also serve as a coordination device for students. For example, if two otherwise similar universities have substantially different rankings, e.g. one is listed in the top 20 and the other in the top thirty, it may be that over time the top 20 university will attract better students, and become a better university. If so, universities that concern themselves with signaling their quality by trying to raise their ranking may not be misguided.

Rankings of international universities (for which the precise rankings are even harder to interpret as being deeply informative) reveal that age is less well correlated with ranking than might appear from looking at American universities alone. For example, in this ranking and in this one, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, both so old that no reliable founding dates are known (although 1096 and 1226 are mentioned in their histories) are both in the top 10. But the much younger American universities dominate the top of the lists, where the equally old universities in continental Europe are scarce.

Update: Here's a November 2009 article from across the pond, which suggests that independence of universities from government may play a role: The American lesson: How to be top


Mike said...

School rankings seem to be a self-reinforcing loop -- top quality students and professors want the prestige of being associated with the "best". This, in turn, leads to higher rankings.

Anonymous said...

Being old is also correlated with having a large endowment. How well do the rankings correlate with that? Probably much better than with age.

I'm not sure of the current USNews methdology, but don't they also take spending per student into account, further reinforcing this?

Rice may be one of the newest of the high-ranked schools, but it has a lot of money.

Daniel said...

Of course, the two lists are using different weightings, possibly even different criteria. Carnegie Mellon is 22nd on the US list, and 21st on the international list.

Princeton is 2nd on the US News list of US universities, but only the 8th highest US school on the QS list.