Do university rankings matter? California business hopes so.

By Bart Taylor | Nov 25, 2013

Do university rankings matter?

The easy answer it that it depends. For schools, the higher the ranking the more meaningful the list.

But with competition for students intensifying, rankings now generate more than passing interest, especially for those without the top-25 pedigree. A higher ranking can translate into more students, more tuition dollars. As reported in the Washington Post last week, “the number of new high school graduates peaked in 2011, after 17 years of growth, and is not projected to reach a new high until 2024, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.” The race is on. Students mean dollars and dollars mean growth, influence, a more stable future.

Rankings also provide another perspective on a question we're asking here, and that is, how well is higher-education answering local industry's call for a workforce of the future? We know there a ‘skills-gap’. Who’s answering the bell?

Most of us are familiar with the U.S. News & Worlds Report annual ranking of universities. But Thomson Reuters’ Times Higher Education's World University Rankings provides the additional filter of international competiveness. The results are fascinating if a bit disconcerting.

As with past years American institutions dominate the top of the list:

  1. California Institute of Technology
  2. Harvard
  3. University of Oxford
  4. Stanford
  5. MIT
  6. Princeton
  7. University of Cambridge
  8. California Berkeley
  9. University of Chicago
  10. Imperial College London

Three Colorado universities make the top 250 – the University of Colorado (97), the Colorado School of Mines (139), and Colorado State University (276). The University of Denver isn’t listed, nor is Colorado College, though U.S. News ranks DU (91) and Colorado College (31) in the National Liberal Arts Colleges category. CU is (86) on U.S. News' U.S.-only ranking, Mines is also (91) and CSU (121.) Metro State University, Colorado's up-and-comer, ranks (23) in Regional Colleges, West.

As predictable the list can be – the top universities are ranked in similar fashion on most lists – the results also challenge conventional wisdom.

The popular narrative here is that California is anti-business, that a flood of taxes and regulation are driving business out. But boy can they educate. California’s network of public institutions dot the top 100: Berkeley (8), Los Angeles (12) San Diego (40), Davis (52), Santa Barbara (33), and Irvine (93), all appear before the first Colorado school on the list – CU at (91). Another, UC Santa Cruz (136) is listed above Mines. And UC Riverside (148) rounds out the stellar California public class ahead of CSU.

Even if a higher number of California's grads move out-of-state to pursue a career, in business-friendlier states, higher-ed is churning out a stream of quality graduates to drive service and industry.

What to make of Colorado’s modest showing – and does it even matter? How can universities here improve their rankings – and do they even want to?

The Times methodology involves performance indicators in five areas. Teaching: the learning environment; Research: volume, income and reputation; Citations: research influence; Industry income: innovation; International outlook: staff, students and research.

In its analysis, the Times notes that universities are specializing to make improvements in operational areas reflected in the list criteria, changes that would in effect drive them up the rankings. American universities generally “do better than the overall top 200 on teaching, research and citations.” Their “citation” scores are particularly strong: 18 of the top 20 performers in the table hail from the US.” the Times notes.

Should moving up the Times and US News lists be a priority? Should colleges tailor curriculum and programs to meeting the 'establishment's' definition of success as defined by the rankings? Or should schools instead seek to better match graduates with opportunities? The oft-quoted research from McKinsey & Company, that 42% of worldwide employers believe recent college graduates are ready for work, while 72% of academic institutions believe graduates are adequately prepared, speaks volumes.

Quality is never be a bad thing. Especially in volume. California’s business environment benefits from its rich pool of diverse, award-winning universities. But ensuring graduates match industry needs seems a higher priority, to the extent they're different.

We’ll hear from Colorado’s universities in the coming weeks about the path ahead, including an interview with Metro State's President, Stephen Jordan, on a manufacturing initiative that may redefine how industry and higher-ed collaborate to educate a new workforce.