Grading Cornell

November 14, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Alex Bores

According to U.S. News and World Report, Cornell is the 15th best national undergraduate university in America, nine spots behind our vanquished Tech Campus competitor Stanford, who is tied with MIT for sixth. However, according to U.S. News and World Report World Rankings, we are the 14th best university in the world. Either there are more universities in the U.S. than the world, or something fishy is going on. The wackiness gets even weirder — Stanford is listed below us on the world rankings. First place is (you guessed it) MIT.
The short explanation, of course, is that they use different metrics for the world and U.S. rankings. The long explanation is that perhaps rankings are not as accurate a predictor of the undergraduate experience as the average high school senior and her overinvolved parents would lead you to believe.
Nationwide, students complain that their universities should stop striving to move up in the rankings and focus more on benefiting their students. The truth is more nuanced. Occasionally, there are direct benefits from moving up in the rankings. Research by ILR professor Ron Ehrenberg has shown that when a university jumps up a ranking it gets more and better-qualified applicants, which can have all sorts of secondary benefits.
More importantly, the rankings can act as a loose guide for how well a university benchmarks against other colleges, assuming you agree with the structure and practices set out by others (whether we should agree is the subject for a future column). Sometimes, this leads to perverse incentives. For example, 10 percent of the U.S. News ranking is spending per-student. Thus, if we find a way to deliver the same services more efficiently, we will be seen as a worse university. Conversely, this measure excludes spending on sports, dorms or hospitals — so if we commit to a needed upgrade of Gannett, you may get the flu less often but our school’s ranking will not budge.
However, with those caveats aside, the rankings can provide useful information on how we can do better. The national rankings are split into six categories: academic reputation, faculty resources, graduation & retention, selectivity, financial resources and alumni giving.
In academic reputation we rank sixth. We also rank first in terms of the number of graduate fields that are considered to be in the top 10 of their discipline. In recent years, there has been a push at Cornell to combine a number of academic departments (i.e. the new economics department), purportedly to better highlight our strengths so that we may be perceived as more academically impressive. Perhaps this is misguided. Our strategic plan calls for us to be “widely recognized as a top-ten research university,” but it appears we are already there. We are lower in the academic reputation score in the world rankings (19th), but this is largely because of incredible clustering at the top — we scored 99.7 percent as high as the top-ranked school.
So, you may ask, if Cornell undergraduates get the sixth best academic experience, what is pulling us down to 15th? In short, every other category. We are 13th in graduation & retention, 18th in financial resources, 18th in alumni giving, 20th in faculty resources and 20th in selectivity. It behooves us to know why we rank lower in these categories, and then decide whether we ought to actively improve our performance or consciously choose not to follow a guideline.
For graduation & retention, our 13th place ranking is the best we have placed in a decade — we spent most of the 2000s at 15th. These factors make up 27.5 percent of our total score: 16 percent is determined by our six-year graduation rate, four percent is our freshman retention rate and 7.5 percent is our adjusted graduation rate — the graduation rate after controlling for spending and student characteristics. In short, this category is where programs such as Students Working Ambitiously to Graduate (SWAG), increased psychological counseling and other programs meant to ensure that students feel that they have all the resources necessary to succeed can make an enormous difference.
Our 18th place finish in alumni giving comprises only five percent of our total score. However, as U.S. News says, it “is an indirect measure of student satisfaction.” There are two possible reactions to this comparatively low ranking. One is to redouble our efforts to get Cornellians to give (and I wish my co-columnist Jon Weinberg ’13 and his co-president of the senior class campaign Fiona Ismail ’13 the best of luck in that regard). But the other reaction is to think about what we can do to ensure that every student has an experience here that makes them want to give back. In the past, measures (since repealed) such as allowing one free replacement ID card were instituted directly because students felt like they were being “nickel and dimed,” and thus were less likely to give back as alumni. Perhaps now, efforts to improve the climate on campus have both immediate benefits on student life and future monetary dividends.
We have less control over our 20th ranking in faculty resources, other than by dedicating increased resources to hiring more and better professors. The vaunted student to faculty ratio accounts for a whopping one percent of our total score. And it is a good thing, because we rank 104th internationally.
We have limited ability to change our ranking in selectivity noticeably, aside from convincing more high school seniors to apply. We have even less ability to change our financial resources other than growing our endowment returns.
However, this does not imply that we should neglect these categories — we need to ensure that they do not slip backwards. Our faculty resources ranking has decreased consistently from a high of 11th in 2007, a drop which by itself has likely cost Cornell a few spots in the overall rankings. Selectivity fell from 15th last year to 20th this year, which will hopefully prove to be just a temporary drop.
If there are two thoughts to take from this article, they are these: First, remind your friends and parents that we are both the hottest Ivy and the sixth best school academically in the country. Second, when we think about ways to improve Cornell, we should learn from the guidelines that are already out there. Often, we may want to deviate from that path. But when we do, let’s ensure that we know exactly why we are doing it.

Alex Bores is the undergraduate student-elected trustee and a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at awb78@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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