Academic journal article College and University

Pursuing Prestige in Higher Education: Stratification, Status, and the Influence of College Rankings

Academic journal article College and University

Pursuing Prestige in Higher Education: Stratification, Status, and the Influence of College Rankings

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

The survival and preservation of a higher education institution has become inextricably linked with the publics perception of its quality. Despite widespread criticism of U.S. News & World Report's college rankings (Guinier and Strum 2001; Hunter 1993; McGuire 1993; Schmitz 1993), the annual "best colleges" guide serves as the most recognized assessment of the performance of higher education institutions. U.S. News & World Report has published college rankings since 1983 and averages roughly 13 million page views on its website when new rankings are released (Diamond 2012). Often, prospective students across the world rely on these rankings when deciding where to apply and enroll for their postsecondary education. For colleges and universities, a more favorable ranking represents the perception of higher quality students and greater institutional prestige. Although many higher education leaders publicly criticize rankings of academic quality, such rankings nevertheless have a strong influence on organizational decision making (Espeland and Saudcr 2007) as institutions frequently monitor rankings criteria in their pursuit of improved status and legitimacy (Bowman and Bastedo 2009).

This study examines ten years of U.S. News & World Report's college rankings in order to investigate the extent to which institutions' pursuit of prestige affects their selectivity and student quality. Changes in ranking have been found to affect higher education institutions' admissions outcomes and prospective students' enrollment decisions (Bowman and Bastedo 2009; Monks and Ehrenberg 1999). Although previous findings have indicated that colleges and universities typically change their behavior in pursuit of improved rankings, this study uses updated data to replicate and extend previous research, examine the influence of college rankings on enrollment decisions across a variety of race and gender categories, and explore the impact of joining an elite peer group-such as the top 10, top 25, or top 50-on admissions outcomes in higher eciucation.


Several studies have examined the effect of college rankings on student and institutional behavior (Bowman and Bastedo 2009; Griffith and Rask 2007-, Meredith 2004; Monks and Ehrenberg 1999; Volkwein and Sweitzer 2006). Although Monks and Ehrenberg (1999) found a significant relationship between college ranking and increased selectivity, all sixteen institutions included in their study were private, ranked in the top 25, and not representative of less prestigious or public institutions. Meredith (2004) investigated the influence of college rankings across a broader range of universities during the 1990s and found that improvements in ranking lowered the average admission rate and decreased the number of Asian and Hispanic students, but the number of first-year African-American students remained relatively unchanged. Bowman and Bastedo (2009) analyzed admissions data for top-tier higher education institutions from 1998 to 2005 and found that national universities were more strongly affected than were liberal arts colleges by a change in ranking. The admissions outcomes of liberal arts colleges were influenced more by institutional costs than by fluctuations in college ranking.

Additional studies have questioned the effectiveness of college rankings in assessing education quality (Hunter 1995; McGuire 1995; Pike 2004; Schmitz 1993). Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) reported that the traditional measures of institutional quality utilized by U.S. News & World Report do not necessarily foster improvements in students' academic and intellectual development. During the timeframe examined in the current study, US. News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities were determined by a weighted combination of indicator variables related to undergraduate academic reputation, student selectivity, faculty resources, graduation and retention rates, financial resources, alumni giving, and graduation rate. …

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