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Race to the top of the mountain.

Why does every college want to be on top of the rankings list?

Photo of Parth Darji
17 10

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College rankings come in handy when a student/parent is making a decision of where to study. Although, they are a measure to grade colleges, are they good enough? When the budget cuts came in place around the 1980s and the number of students kept increasing each year, college administrators saw the expanding student population (the 'market' for their services) as an opportunity to enlarge the size and standing of their campuses. This led to a competition between universities for prominent faculty which was judged based on their salaries. In a race to the top of the competition, they expanded and modernized their laboratory space to attract prestigious government grants. New sports facilities were built along with dormitories that advertised comforts unheard of till the 1980s. Schools have chosen to compete on the basis of amenities (fancy buildings, excellent food, ample staff) in a scramble to the top of the rating tables.

These facilities are an important part of the learning process at colleges, but are they doing any good to the overall education that the student receives? These facilities cost a lot of money and don't contribute much to the quality of education on campus. Looking at college from a completely educational viewpoint, there hasn't been any substantial growth in the quality of education from 1960s to now while the cost of college has gone up by over 3 times.

Is being on top of the rating table so important that we spend so much money on 'facilities' and charge the students for them in the name of 'tuition fees'?

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

For any college, being on top of the rating table is important but comes at a cost.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Riya Choksi

great work :)

Photo of Trevor z Hallstein

It does make you wonder if universities and colleges with perfectly adequate facilities were to say, contribute some of those funds to raising up other institutions or expanding the size of the student body they could handle. If you have time during the research phase, it might be helpful to interview a few high school students to understand how their thinking about college is influenced by college rankings. Here's a link to the DesignKit interview resources,

Photo of Parth Darji

I wish I was able to do more research on this one, but I am caught up in another project and cannot really do this at this time. However, I would love for someone to take up this idea and push it further by interviewing high school students. Thank you for the resource.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Great provocation Parth!
I think you are highlighting an important tension: no real increase in quality of education vs. increase in costs (mainly because of real-estates). The documentary Ivory Tower ( makes a similar argument.
The question is best ranking vs. good education? They might match but there are also other options providing good education. I personally have been in this situation for my son when selecting high schools in NY. He was accepted in some of the public high schools that have the best rankings (e.g specialized high schools) but he eventually decided to go to a charter school offering the International Baccalaureate because he liked the IB approach, and heard the teachers were excellent (and they are!). He does not regret his choice but I know that some of his friends did not understand his choice. I also had to explain to some of my friends. In that case, price was not an issue but ranking and perception did.
There is also an underlying point in your post which reminded me Rob's post on perception of worth associated to cost:

One element to be thinking of in the next phase is how to provide different ways to think of college value beyond ratings? How to educate students and their families? Provide the information (according to what criteria)? This might also provide some colleges more freedom to rethink their use of tuitions.

Photo of Parth Darji

Thank you for your insights, professor. I absolutely adore the choice your son made, and I probably would have made the same in a similar situation. I also agree that many of my friends and family would not have understood the choice. We need to change this mentality that higher cost implies better quality.

I think it would be a good exercise for the next phase to reevaluate the college rating process. I would discuss this among my team and see if we could find better criteria for efficiently rank colleges.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

looking forward to seeing what your team comes up with during the next phase. I think being able to mitigate the symbolic capital associated to some colleges might be worth exploring especially if you look at the different expectations and needs associated to college education. This book might be an interesting resource (It was mentioned to me a couple of months ago):

PS: Regarding my son's, I supported him when he made that decision and I don't regret it. His learning experience is excellent: the IB program is really rigorous and his teachers excellent and passionate.

Photo of Parth Darji

Thank you for the book recommendation, I would definitely look into it.

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell

Hello Parth,
You should have a look at this lecture for the opening of the 2012-2013 academic year at Maastricht University: (you should also find a pdf about it). Frans van Vught makes a compelling point about how universities should be ranked.

Photo of Parth Darji

Hi Katerina, this is extremely insightful. I agree with Frans van Vught when he talks about transparency in university profiles. The more I see these videos, listen to these talks and talk with my friends studying in Europe, I feel that US should take a more European approach in re-evaluating the concept of education as we know it.

Thank you for your comments.

Photo of Wasim Khawja

Hello Parth,
This is a very interesting contribution. When I first came to college, all I really looked into was rankings. As I progressed through college, I realized how rankings were determined only partially from academic reputation. Many people are more focused on the reputation of the school rather than the quality of education they receive. I figured it had more to do with status. To add-on, you should also take a look at this article I read. They talk about the rankings and the weight that goes into determining them.

Photo of Parth Darji

Hello Wasim, thank you for your insights. This article is brilliant - it touches all the points I have in mind and that pertain to the questions that should be asked before validating the ranking of universities.

Photo of Venkitaraman Hariharan

This is a fantastic perspective on price vs. value. It raises the issue of how important the auxiliary bells and whistles are when it comes to education. Granted it looks great on a CV, but for someone who is looking for the bare minimum degree to get a job decent enough to sustain themselves this would make no difference.

Also, congrats on being featured!! Drinks on you Tuesday!

Photo of Parth Darji

Thanks Venky, glad you see the issue here.

Tuesday it is, good friend!

Photo of Javier Gómez-Acebo Finat

Hi Parth,

Food for thought indeed! I know it’s not absolutely necessary, But have you got any sources? I’d really like to dive deeper on this possible link between cost of education / cost of facilities…

Photo of Parth Darji

Hi Javier,

Yes I have a few sources I referred to before making this post. I'll list them down here:

1. The real reason college tuition costs so much:

2. 6 reasons why college is expensive (although this is more about how to save on college expenses):

3. How did college education become so ridiculously expensive:

4. Why Is College So Expensive? Because It's Just What Parents Want For Their Children:

5. Higher Education Is Now Ground Zero For Disruption (this is an economics-based analysis and might be what you're exactly looking for):

Hope this helps.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Parth Darji

Thank you OpenIDEO! I feel extremely honored.