Anxiety dressed as school rankings

Who are we? 
What are we supposed to think? 
What should we do?

Existential crises aside. The answer to these questions will often be enumerated. Price determines what’s luxury. Or boujee. Or OKs publicly acceptable conspicuous consumption to be indicators of stratification: be it expensive art or wine (the second most expensive wine in a restaurant is most likely the cheapest).

Polls assuage and disappoint (think 2016). They make us turn hope into a peculiar form of populism, acting like a bridge between the knowns and the unknowns.

The census, tells about ourselves. But most importantly about others. You don’t seem so old anymore when the median age in the U.S. is 38. But you’d be ancient in particular other countries where ages hover in the mid 20s.

‘On a scale of 1–10’: The scale of 1–10 essentially rigs our mentality on how we think. It is often a shorthand for what is good. Or not. The space between 1 & 10 tricks us to fit more nuanced aspects of attributes but summarize them with a number. This reorients everyone involved — creating insiders and outsiders aligned around the subject matter being rated. People stop being equal. Choices seem validated.

There is also economic growth. We anchor a lot on this.

One of the key drivers of growth is education. And alas! We have a way of shaping our understanding as to what education is and what kind of student accesses what type of education. It’s a number: rankings.

School rankings have been produced to capture what a good education means: from students to faculty to administrators. Just the mere technical and math-y nature of these rankings legitimizes them.

Rankings shape university practice and policy. In fact, so much so that the rankings themselves have stopped being reflective of the school and instead become constitutive (Espeland, Sauder 2016).

The constitutive nature begins to make sense once you think of ranking like some form of an addiction that the school has. A resilient one.

Better yet, there is an aspect of path dependency once a number is assigned to something (as discussed earlier).

In simple terms: the ranking of a school has become so much of an institutional identity that the school’s policy and strategy will be aimed at morphing the school itself in fulfilling any gaps in its ranking.

On a standalone basis this is easy to achieve and not in cosmetic terms.

Several organizations signal changes when something happens but leave the main parts of their organizations unchanged. Not for schools — the path dependency endures as each aspect of the school is changed to fit the rank…

…or, climb up the ranking ladder as ranking is relative. So it is tough to be in a steady state for long.

Because naturally, one would always want to move up the ranks. This is in order to show where one stands in relation to other schools or to be part of a highly ranked inner group where the look and feel of the perceived education is similarly structured.

Rankings therefore become self-fulfilling prophecies. That is why several institutions begin to morph to a sense, state and existence of sameness.

The question then is this. Is the look and feel of the perceived education what’s important or is it the look and feel of the educational experience and the result?

In What does it mean to be educated?, we explored the idea of miseducation. In that, schools might not be preparing students adequately with the skills to fit the dynamic labor market despite an ever-rising level of student debt and underemployment.

Let’s also not forget that some students are better off learning early that a baccalaureate education isn’t there and would be better suited to attain and master a technical skill. But they can’t cull a 4-year college from rankings alone.

Given the current rankings, there is no way for student to adequately judge schools not just by being prepared with real skills that attract the top dollar, but by being in environments where they can thrive, learn from others and be fully developed people.

Most of this has to do with inclusion. Be it identity (gender, race, sexual orientation) or economic status (percent of low-income students) or political leaning (schools tend to be more left-leaning).

This form of alternative data will give the real look and feel of schools and administration and faculty can be more discerning of the student population; students can make better choices and the surrounding economies can adjust to make the choices and cost of living around the school more realistic to the given student population.

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