From tuition prices to grade point averages, the college game has become strictly decided by the numbers. Despite mixed feelings from university leaders, recent findings indicate Miami University students are relying on rankings to make their college decision.
According to the First year Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey, which is given to first-year students during summer orientation, 37 percent of the 2011 incoming class said rankings in national magazines were “very important” in their decision to attend Miami.
However, as universities are spending countless hours and thousands of dollars to reply to national publications’ requests, the draw of being ranked becomes complicated.
Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management Michael Kabbaz said Miami answers dozens of requests from publications each year, such as U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and Washington Monthly.
In fact Andrea Bakker, assistant director of the Office of Institutional Research (OIR), spent 80 hours last year providing information for external publications such as college guidebooks, magazines and newspapers.
In order for a news source to obtain data from Miami, it first contacts the office of enrollment, which then collaborates with the offices of institutional research and admission work to provide that information, Kabbaz said.
Bakker said publications can also go directly to Miami’s Common Data Set, which OIR completes each year to be submitted for inclusion in college guidebooks.
According to Bakker, sources request information including university size, first-year retention rates, the number of student organizations and faculty salary information.
In addition to the time allocated for these efforts, Wright State University recently spent $8,600 on a campaign attempting to be named as an “up and coming” school, according to Kabaaz.
Kabbaz said Miami’s offices have not spent money on providing data and instead put most of their efforts into ensuring the information they provide is accurate.
“We love to see we get recognized by third parties, but it’s not something we want to spend time and resources on,” he said.
He said other schools also work to influence their rankings through advertising campaigns to their peers who review schools for the U.S. News and World Report.
Kabbaz said he receives dozens of guidebooks from universities intended to sway his peer assessment.
“A lot of institutions feel we can be influenced by how they approach us,” he said.
The subjectivity of these rankings is one thing that is largely criticized. Kabbaz said 22 percent of the ranking weight from U.S. News and World Report is based on opinions from high school guidance counselors and university deans, presidents, provosts and people with similar positions to Kabbaz.
According to Claire Wagner, associate director of university communications, this type of polling is clearly not the same as straight data.
“I think what’s most important for students and parents who are looking at a university is to understand the data behind the rankings,” Wagner said.
Also worrisome for Kabbaz is one particular factor many ranking systems weigh in: faculty resources. Since Miami is mainly an undergraduate focused institution, its faculty resources data has no way of comparing to a large research institution and that can skew rankings.
Despite the controversy surrounding rankings, Kabbaz said they are here to stay.
“We’re in a society where people look at rankings; it’s a part of our consumer behavior,” he said.
Kabbaz attributes some of this to the competition among universities.
“Institutions have become increasingly competitive in the type of students they want to attract and rankings fuel that conversation,” Kabbaz said.
Given that rankings are now part of the university environment, Kabbaz said being ranked by these publications is valuable for Miami.
“It’s great that these sources are recognizing the value of the Miami education; it’s always great to have third party affirmation of what we believe is a phenomenal undergraduate institution,” Kabbaz said.
Since college ranking lists have gained such widespread popularity and acceptance, Vice President of Finance and Business Services David Creamer said they have become a necessary evil.
“Rankings have an effect on the public perception, so we can’t ignore them,” Creamer said.
According to Wagner, being included is worth the controversy.
“It’s better to be among a crowd of high achieving universities than to not be listed,” Wagner said.
While they say rankings are helpful in beginning the decision process, Wagner said a school’s rank should not be the main factor for students in the end.
“Don’t just use rankings, because it matters most that a student is comfortable and can see themselves succeeding at a university,” Wagner said.
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