Scholar: 'Diversity component' trivializes college rankings

Richard Vedder, a scholar who assisted Forbes in developing its college ranking model, has blasted modern school rankings for their inclusion of a “diversity component.”

Vedder, who currently directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and also teaches economics at Ohio University, outlined several key problems with what he believes are the “same old college rankings” in an op-ed for Minding the Campus this week.

“How did The Wall Street Journal and the British-based Times Higher Education do their rankings?” Vedder asks. “They used 15 factors, heavily emphasizing outcomes (40 percent), and resources (30 percent). Another 20 percent reflects student ‘engagement,’ and 10 percent is a diversity component.”

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The scholar argues that one of the key issues with ranking colleges is the “resources” category, which rewards schools that invest “more on instruction per student” and have “a higher faculty-student ratio.”

“In other words, if a school is wealthy, it is better, since rich or high tuition schools can buy faculty and even research,” he explains. “Quality is measured here by inputs, not outputs. If a school gives its faculty all 10 percent raises, rankings go up—but does institutional effectiveness rise?”

According to Vedder, however, the problem “is minor compared with the diversity component, rhetorically disguised as an ‘environmental’ factor.”

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“The University of Michigan could improve its already respectable 27th placement by replacing students from Michigan by those from Iran and by replacing white students with those from presumptively better races,” the professor observes. “While I believe having students of diverse backgrounds is useful in promoting a full learning experience, there are few American schools that do not largely achieve that already (although the number of poor students at top schools is typically relatively small).”  

Vedder argues that The Wall Street Journal diversity component does not actually measure the quality of education “but rather is catering to [politically] correct racist instincts.”

“Campus tolerance and support for a diversity of ideas, of course, is what is really important, and it is not considered in the rankings (although it would be difficult although not impossible to do so),” he writes.

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Apart from the diversity criteria, Vedder also identifies “information and varying human preferences” as additional problems with college rankings systems, noting that universities have a vested interest in cultivating positive public perceptions even if the data do not necessarily support the narrative.

“Universities are supposedly in the business of creating and distributing information and knowledge, but when it comes to themselves, they do everything possible to prevent the public from knowing much,” he asserts, adding that “the best college or university for an individual varies with personal interests, academic performance, geography, income, sometimes race or religion, accessibility to friends or relatives, etc.”

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