Striving for Prestige and Ranking Systems

Each year college administrators and faculty hold their breath as institution, college, and department rankings are released. Did they move up or down? What will this mean for their programs and the resources they can attract? At the same time, many students begin their higher education experience with little to no knowledge of how college programs are ranked by such magazines as USNWR. Rather students care about their college’s location within 100 miles of their home, the cost, and career placement upon graduation. Increasingly, students log-in to websites that rank party schools, professors, and fraternities and sororities. Yet what is being ranked, rated, or categorized varies greatly, and has differing levels of consequence for various stakeholders of higher education: the student, the parent, the faculty member, the college president or provost, the alum, the donor, the higher education researcher, the community member nearby and the state legislator.

I became concerned about the behaviors that ranking systems were encouraging several years ago. So much of what was most meaningful to me about my own undergraduate education, as well as a faculty member, was not reflected in rankings criteria. Yet so many faculty and administrators were changing their priorities and behavior in order to move up in USNWR rankings. From this interest, I developed a winter rankings course, and coined the term “striving” to discuss the behavior institutions exhibit as they are trying to move up within domestic and world ranking systems, with a particular interest in the role rankings play in faculty work-life. My research and graduate course consider how the dominant and alternative ranking systems work and how they shape higher education structures and cultures. I examine the criteria used in ranking systems for their connection to research on students, faculty, and higher education organizations, and how rankings can be used to reflect and legitimize the status quo, or to shed light on new and distinct contributions of higher education institutions. 

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O’Meara, K. (2007). Striving for what? Exploring the pursuit of prestige. In J. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research, 22 (pp. 121-179). New York, NY: Springer. 

O'Meara, K., & Bloomgarden, A. (2011). The pursuit of prestige: The experience of institutional striving from a faculty perspective. Journal of the Professoriate, 4(1), 39-73.

Meekins, M., & O’Meara, K. (2011). Ranking contributions to place: Developing an alternative model for competition in higher education. p. 6-9. Public Purpose. Washington, D.C.: AASCU.

O’Meara, K., & Meekins, M. (2012). Inside rankings: Limitations and possibilities (Working Paper, 2012 Series, No. 1). Boston, MA: New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

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