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“there’s no rankings problem that money can’t solve” – the tale of how northeastern gamed the college rankings

There’s a September 2014 Boston.com article on Northeastern University and how it broke the top-100 in the US News & World Report of colleges and universities. The summary goes something like this: Northeastern’s former president, Richard Freeland, inherited a school that was a poorly endowed commuter school. In the modern environment, that leads you to a death spiral. A low profile leads to low enrollments, which leads to low income, which leads to an even lower profile.

The solution? Crack the code to the US News college rankings. He hired statisticians to learn the correlations between inputs and rankings. He visited the US News office to see how they built their system and bug them about what he thought was unfair. Then, he “legally” (i.e., he didn’t cheat or lie) did things to boost the rank. For example, he moved Northeastern from commuter to residential school by building more dorms. He also admitted a different profile of student that wouldn’t the depress the mean SAT score and shifted student to programs that were not counted in the US News ranking (e.g., some students are admitted in Spring admissions and do not count in the US News score).

Comments: 1. In a way, this is admirable. If the audience for higher education buys into the rankings and you do what the rankings demand, aren’t you giving people what they want? 2. The quote in the title of the post is from Michael Bastedo, a higher ed guru at Michigan, who is pointing out that rankings essentially reflect money. If you buy fancier professors and better facilities, you get better students. The rank improves. 3. Still, this shows how hard it is to move. A nearly billion dollar drive moves you from a so-so rank of about 150 to a so-so rank of about 100-ish. Enough to be “above” the fold, but not enough to challenge the traditional leaders of higher ed.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2015 at 12:01 am

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  1. The two things they did that I found really striking were 1) raise their reputation ranking by personally meeting the 300 people who would be voting on them, and 2) convincing US News that co-op students should not be counted as enrolled, raising their resources-per-student number. Now that’s thinking outside the box.

    James Stellar, who was Dean of Arts & Sciences at Northeastern for a good chunk of this period, just arrived as the new Provost here at SUNY Albany. I wonder what the future has in store.

    Like

    epopp

    February 13, 2015 at 12:31 am


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