When people want to know how “good” a university is, they often turn to published media ratings, such as the rankings of U.S. News & World Report. The assumption is that the better the ratings, the better the university is. But there may be cases in which a better rating is actually a bad thing. It all depends on the mission of the university. Consider, for example, the case of the land-grant mission.
First, the land-grant mission, as framed by the Morrill Act of 1862, emphasizes the importance of access. Believers in the land-grant mission trust in the potential of students and in their capacity for self-improvement. They therefore want to give all qualified students a chance to succeed at their university. From the standpoint of the land-grant mission, the more qualified students a university accepts, the better it is in fulfilling its mission. That’s true even if it means enrolling a large share of those who apply. U.S. News, in contrast, factors into its ratings "student selectivity." In other words, the more students a college or university rejects, the more highly it is rated. The land-grant mission, therefore, leads to the opposite conclusion of the U.S. News ratings regarding what constitutes quality.
Second, the land-grant mission is about access because of a belief of its creators in the modifiability of human abilities. Such a view is consistent with a wide variety of psychological research indicating that people can become smarter.
So in taking students with a wider range of standardized test scores than would normally be admitted to highly selective universities, the land-grant university is betting that students can become smarter through a college education. They are emphasizing “throughput” rather than input. Their concern is with the value added by a college education more than by the input value shown by standardized tests.
On this view, relying heavily on standardized tests in college admissions locks students into a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby some, by virtue of their superior enculturation, socialization, and schooling, are given more opportunities, whereas others who have had fewer past opportunities are blocked off from better future opportunities. In essence, universities have created a “Matthew effect” through their admissions process, whereby to those who have more, comes more, and to those who have less, comes less.
Third, the land-grant mission leads us to wish to serve our states and the communities within our states by educating ethical leaders who will make a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the nation and the world. Ethical leaders come from all kinds of backgrounds. Through work or chores as well as through school and extracurricular activities, students learn the importance of creativity, integrity, hard work, self-reliance, responsibility, entrepreneurship, common sense, and how to work with others for a common good. ACTs and SATs measure important academic skills, but the scores do not measure these crucial characteristics of ethical leaders.
U.S. News does not count these characteristics at all in its ratings, but it does count ACT and SAT scores, which measure only a tiny sliver of the characteristics (in particular, knowledge and analytical reasoning with this knowledge) that have made our state and our nation great. Nor does U.S. News count some of the things land-grant universities value most, such as employing as many of our graduates as possible in meaningful, well-paying jobs.
Fourth, U.S. News values universities with higher retention rates, which makes sense. But it is much easier for a university to attain a high freshman retention rate if it accepts only students with sky-high high school grades and standardized test scores than if it accepts a broader range of students. Is it “better” to make the university’s task easier? Well, perhaps it is better if the university’s goal is to be as selective as possible. But it is worse if the university’s goal is to give as many qualified students as possible a chance to have a college education. Land-grant universities want to win the retention race, but they typically do not have the jet pack of top high-school grades and test scores strapped to the backs of the large majority of their racers. If they want to increase their U.S. News rating, they may be tempted to restrict admissions to students with strong academic backgrounds, again working against access.
Finally, U.S. News values colleges and universities on their “financial resources.” Many land-grant universities cannot and never will compete on financial resources with institutions that charge $50,000 to $60,000 or more a year in total expenses. They shouldn’t even try. Rather, land-grant universities, in order to promote access, can and should take pride in being as inexpensive as possible.
They could become more expensive and richer, but only at the expense of their mission. In Wyoming, for example, the State Constitution actually requires that education at our state colleges and university be as near to free as possible. U.S. News and similar raters of universities should not define what excellence is. A university’s fidelity to its mission should define what academic excellence is.
Universities that seek to enhance their published ratings, emanating from any of the media, risk sacrificing their mission for the sake of getting higher ratings. There is no one mission that is right for every college and university, and there is no one set of ratings that captures all the factors that lead to excellence in institutions with diverse missions.
Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming. The views expressed in this essay, however, are merely his own personal ones. A subsequent column will outline a proposal for how land-grant universities might appropriately be evaluated and ranked.