Ranking system a poor reflection of Texas public universities

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A ranking is only as useful as its underlying methodology. If it relies on an algorithm that reasonably weighs empirically measured variables against one another, it might have some value. But if its components fail to reach that standard, it's about as useful as a BuzzFeed quiz. 

So as encouraging as it is to hear fiscally conservative Gov. Greg Abbott promote high-quality public education, I'm concerned by his severely flawed approach to reforming Texas universities.  

Abbott routinely emphasizes his goal of pushing five schools in Texas into the top 10 of U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of public universities. But the U.S. News formula's reliance on subjective data makes it statistically useless, and its emphasis on alumni donations and retention rates leaves it inherently biased against schools as economically diverse as Texas'.  

In other words, there's no way to achieve Abbott's goal without forcing most of the state's public universities to deviate from their educational missions. 

According to the U.S. News website, 22.5 percent of a school's ranking is tied to how well it fares in a survey of high school guidance counselors and college administrators. The rationale, the magazine claims, is that the counselors can accurately measure a college's notability, while administrators can rate "intangible" characteristics like "faculty dedication to teaching." 

But guidance counselors at public high schools, if they're doing their jobs right, tend to concern themselves with helping stressed and indecisive teenagers navigate the process of finding and applying to suitable colleges. They aren't equipped to evaluate the quantity or quality of a university's research output, nor are they experts on how well a school's donor base reflects overall alumni satisfaction. 

In the same vein, effective school administrators are probably more worried about making sure their own campuses run smoothly than about whether they're fairly evaluating another school's "faculty dedication to teaching." Indeed, I'd be somewhat concerned if David Laude, a chemistry professor and UT's senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management, could accurately measure whether Texas Tech's sociology professors infuse their lectures with a sufficient amount of gusto. 

In essence, then, U.S. News is banking almost a quarter of its rating system on the expert testimony of non-experts. And while I'm sure that some counselors and administrators are knowledgeable enough to turn in accurate evaluations, the rest  probably base their opinions on the information most readily available to them online, which includes rankings like those published in U.S. News. That creates a feedback loop in which a school's ranking largely depends on how highly it has been ranked in the past. 

Another 22.5 percent of the ranking comes from a combination of a school's six-year graduation rate and its freshman retention rate. That's bad news for schools as socioeconomically diverse as UT. Accepting a large number of students from underperforming high schools inevitably leads to higher dropout rates and lower graduation rates when those unequipped for the rigors of college life either quit school or stick around long enough to retake courses they've failed. 

To remedy that problem, UT has become something of an education policy laboratory, implementing all sorts of innovative strategies to support flailing students from underprivileged backgrounds.  

But U.S. News doesn't recognize those efforts. As far as its ranking is concerned, UT would become a better school if it just didn’t accept those students in the first place. So if Abbott is serious about fulfilling his promise, he could start by abolishing the top 7 percent rule, thereby preventing bright students in underserved areas from accessing the state's premier public universities. 

Other factors in the ranking, from the percentage of donating alumni to student-to-faculty ratios to professor salaries, favor small schools over big schools; rich schools over poor schools; and, most damningly for UT, homogeneous schools over diverse schools. The only feasible path toward pushing Texas universities up the ladder involves radically changing the makeup of their respective student bodies. 

In that regard, playing the rankings game isn't beneficial to public universities of UT's size. Texas taxpayers subsidize universities so that they can affordably and effectively educate the state's future leaders. It's unclear how tailoring those universities to suit an arbitrary list from an arbitrarily chosen magazine furthers that goal. 

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.