UT Official Studies Impact of Rankings on Higher Education

KNOXVILLE –- Media rankings of colleges and university MBA programs matter to students, faculty, alumni and donors. They influence the way colleges and universities do their work. And, while some academics question the validity of rankings, most believe them to be correct.

Those are among the findings of a research study done by Nissa Dahlin-Brown, assistant director of the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. Dahlin-Brown has a doctorate in higher education administration and policy studies.

Dahlin-Brown’s study, “The Perceptual Impact of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on Eight Public MBA Programs,” was published in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, a peer-reviewed, refereed, professional and scholarly journal published by Haworth Press.

U.S. News & World Report, which publishes a variety of college ranking lists, has published its rankings of the nation’s top 50 MBA programs since 1990. U.S. News officials said rankings are based on reputation (40 percent), placement success (35 percent) and student selectivity (25 percent).

“I set out to discover and describe the impact of the U.S. News & World Report rankings on ranked and unranked public MBA schools,” Dahlin-Brown said. She interviewed 45 faculty and administrators. Those officials represented eight unnamed colleges and universities — three in the Tier 1 (ranked 1-25), three in Tier 2 (ranked 26-50) and two unranked institutions.

Four themes emerged from the research, according to Dahlin-Brown.

1) Rankings matter
“Rankings catch the attention of prospective students, parents, and employers,” she said. “Schools that rank well win praise from legislators, trustees, and alumni.”

Further, she noted in her published study: “Schools have found that when (MBA program’s) rankings rise, admission applications go up. If their ranking drops, many tell stories of decreased enrollments, angry alumni and students, lost funding, and more.”

2) Rankings impact policy and practice
Those interviewed said the desire to be a top-ranked MBA school had prompted their institutions to adopt some controversial practices. Those practices include doing away with undergraduate programs to provide more resources for MBA programs and beefing up career services and admissions offices to funneling more money into MBA programs.

3) Rankings may be based more on appearance than substance
“Some of the people I interviewed complained that rankings weren’t statistically based,” Dahlin-Brown said, noting that literature on the topic has echoed that concern. Dahlin-Brown’s study quotes one person interviewed as saying, “I think these rankings, no matter how systematic they are, tend to be beauty contests.”

4) Rankings are generally thought to be correct, i.e., top-ranked were the best.
Although most participants thought U.S. News’ top-ranked schools were the nation’s best, they said that’s partly because those schools have good overall reputations.

“Most participants agreed that the U.S. News ranking did not measure the academic excellence of the (MBA) schools they ranked,” the study states.

Dahlin-Brown’s study also notes that schools with MBA programs ranked 1-25 were more positive about the rankings than those ranked 26-50, or not ranked at all.

“College rankings have become a point of controversy in the higher education community,” she said. “While some think rankings are helpful to prospective students, others think the rankings are time-consuming endeavors that have little or no constructive value.”


Contacts:
Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu
Nissa Dahlin-Brown, (865) 974-0931, Nissa@utk.edu