One Thought to Start Your Day
February 2nd, 2022 | Alex Usher
Today I want to discuss two interesting developments in rankings, one purely American and the other intriguingly transatlantic.

The first is a new set of rankings published by Third Way, a vaguely centre-left Foundation based in Washington DC under the direction of Michael Itzkowitz, an Obama administration appointee who directed the creation of the College Scorecard. Suffice to say Itzkowitz has spent a long time thinking about how to use data to compare colleges’ efforts with respect to public policy goals like – among other things – social mobility, so this is an effort which should command serious attention.
This new ranking, which goes under the decidedly non-flashy name of The Economic Mobility Index, focusses on three policy outcomes. First, does the institution admit many low-income students (where eligibility for Pell grants is the proxy for low-income)?  Second, what is the net cost of attendance for low-income students (that is, what do they pay after Pell grants and institutional scholarships are included)? Third, how much do low-income graduates earn after graduation? The second and third of those are combined into a single indicator which measures how long it takes low-income students to earn back their investment in an undergraduate degree.

As useful, multi-dimensional approaches to the issue of social mobility go, this is pretty good. To score well, an institution must admit a lot of low-income students and make sure that they get a good return on their investment. Institutions that only do the latter – and most “top” universities score like Stanford, Harvard and Princeton do well on this measure because they select the top students and have the financial resources to make sure they do not pay much – won’t win this ranking because they simply don’t admit many poor students to begin with. Success only comes to those who do both.

And the winners? Well, the top ten consist of six California State University campuses (that’s CSUs, not UCs), two City University of New York campuses, and a branch each of the University of Texas and Texas A&M, both of which are nestled on the Mexican border. Which I think suggests that there are always going to be some limitations on these kinds of mobility rankings: you need to be located somewhere where there are a lot of poor people, and be near to places that generate a crap load of wealth. CSU Fresno, for instance, serves a low-income population but happens to be commuting distance from Silicon Valley. As long as a public university located in such a place performs half-way competently in terms of graduating low-income students, it will do in this ranking.  Places with lower levels of economic inequality (Alaska say, or New Hampshire) or that don’t have big economic magnet cities (Mississippi, say, or West Virginia) aren’t likely to do well.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a useful tool to help think about institutional performance in promoting social mobility. But like pretty much any ranking, it has some in-built biases which give advantages to institutions with certain unalterable characteristics. So as usual, use caution and context when reading/interpreting the results.
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The second story is the acquisition of Inside Higher Education (IHE) by Times Higher Education (THE). Superficially, this looks like a simple consolidation story: in theory, the merger creates a global higher education news powerhouse, with IHE covering the US and the Times covering the rest of the world (sort of – it’s still a mainly UK-focussed publication). But this really isn’t a news deal. The THE has no interest in greater American coverage for its mostly UK audience – that outlet has had exactly one North American correspondent for as long as I can remember, so it’s not as through the readership is banging on the door for more coverage there. And it’s the same the other way: Inside Higher Education’s readers has never cared that much for international coverage/commentary (disclosure: I was a contributor to IHE’s The World View blog for a couple of years before it was closed down for not generating more clicks); while it has a significant international reader base, that base is tuning in for the coverage of US issues. And besides, both sides have already basically said that there won’t be any change in new coverage – THE subscribers aren’t getting access to IHE content and vice-versa. All there will be is the occasional article from one popping up in the other’s newsfeed, which is a deal that has been in existence for several years.

No, this deal is about distribution channels. THE is owned by a private equity firm called Inflexion. When Inflexion acquired THE a couple of years ago, it called the Times “the world leader in university data, rankings and content”. Note the order, because it’s key to understanding the actual financial basis for rankings. Content is important, sure: THE does reasonably good sector journalism, and the credibility that comes with that is key to THE’s ability to get institutions to give it rankings-related data for free. This gives it the ability to come up with rankings that are moderately plausible (that is, they usually if not always pass the fall-down-laughing test). But the important thing – the thing that actually brings in the bucks – is that rankings are a hook/advertisement for data services. That’s where the money is. And I know, because in a very modest and not especially profitable way, I did something similar in the past.

It is vitally important to understand that as a commercial proposition, rankings are meaningless in and of themselves. Rankings are, rather, a form of advertising and a way to sell data. Institutions understand perfectly well that the social science behind rankings is mostly crap, though they may on occasion find the results useful as marketing fodder. At the same time, institutions also believe that the individual indicators from which rankings are built can be meaningful as performance benchmarks. 

The data analytics being sold by THE are a way for institutions to consider various aspects of institutional performance. And that’s fine. But the problem for THE is that it has been consistently shut out of the world’s biggest market for this stuff – the United States. American universities frankly don’t pay much attention to international rankings. Nor do they participate in the THE’s well-meaning but still methodologically goofy Impact Rankings. Nor did they even pay much attention to the THE’s attempt to create a bespoke US ranking with the Wall Street Journal to try to compete with the dominant US News & World Report rankings. And if they can’t get American universities hooked on the rankings THE produces, they can’t really sell their data division’s analytical services – which are geared to helping institutions understand how to improve themselves in those rankings – in the world’s richest higher education market.

Given this, the meaning of the IHE sale becomes clear. For the first time, THE has a direct channel to talk to American academia. I expect they will do this gradually cranking up the rankings and indicator talk. They’ll push the idea of Impact Rankings, hoping to get more American institutions on board and hence increase their data holdings. Their main global rankings will be pushed more, too, but in ways that highlight institutions outside the usual top 15-20 suspects. If I were in their shoes I would go long on subject rankings, which are still largely unknown in the US and which might start a plethora of intriguing new arms races (Vanderbilt has cracked the World Top Ten in Education! OMG, Harvard is down to just third in the US in Business & Economics! etc). In fact, maybe they could even get rid of the global aspect all together and just have IHE publish US-specific versions of the rankings.

Anyways, I don’t imagine this will have much of an effect on IHE’s news operations. As with Times Higher Ed, it’s precisely the credibility of the news side which makes the rest of the operation possible, so there’s not really any percentage in trying to skip on this side in a search for profitability. But make no mistake: this is all about THE needing a better channel to American institutions and a portion of their institutional research dollars. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.  
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