College Guide


August 20, 2009 12:47 PM International Studies

How America’s mania for college rankings went global.

By Ben Wildavsky

The last part of AHELO is the least developed, and the most important—an attempt to measure the value-added component of higher education. In other words, it would differentiate between schools that are good at attracting A students and schools that are good at transforming B students into A students. While the first three parts of the assessment are currently being tested in a handful of countries, OECD officials say the value-added measure is not ready for prime time, even on an experimental basis—they’re still thinking through possible methodologies, drawing on similar work they are doing at the secondary school level.

This last point should give Americans pause. The OECD’s secondary school work—an international test known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA—brought some unpleasant news when it debuted in 2001 and showed that U.S. high school students were far behind many of their global counterparts. So far, U.S. colleges have little to fear from the currently available international rankings, which focus heavily on the research and reputation measures at which the long-established and top tier of American schools excel. But new rankings that shine a spotlight on student learning as well as research could deliver far less pleasant results, both for American universities and for others around the world that have never put much focus on classroom learning.

The truth is that we don’t know how we’ll stack up—and not everybody wants to find out. Some in the American higher education community have been deeply resistant to the prospect of AHELO.Yes, measuring learning outcomes is important, Terry W. Hartle, a senior official at the American Council on Education, the umbrella lobbying group for U.S. colleges and universities, told Inside Higher Ed. But, he stressed, “If we haven’t been able to figure out how to do this in the United States, it’s impossible for me to imagine a method or standard that would work equally well for Holyoke Community College, MIT and the Sorbonne.” (Disclosure: Last year I consulted for ACE on a short writing assignment.)

There is some truth to what Hartle says. AHELO isn’t all-encompassing—it pays zero attention to research, which is a core activity of top universities—and we wouldn’t want schools and governments to base decisions entirely on it much more than we would want them to base decisions entirely on the Shanghai Jiao Tong or Times Higher rankings; all rankings, after all, are imperfect instruments. But that doesn’t mean we should follow the advice of many in American higher education and try to steer clear of the assessment. Such a move would only preserve U.S. schools’ international reputations in the short term; if the rest of the world cooperates with the OECD assessments, claims of American exceptionalism will look absurd.

Furthermore, if the news AHELO brings about American higher education is worse than expected, we’ll be better off knowing it sooner rather than later. Finding out that America’s K–12 education was lagging behind the rest of the developed world didn’t hurt our primary and secondary schools—it pushed us to make needed reforms. AHELO could similarly be an instrument of much-needed change in the teaching side of American higher education, a useful way to get around the recalcitrance of those educational institutions that resist attempts at bringing some accountability to their multibillion-dollar enterprise. It’s also crucial to remember that the international race to improve higher education isn’t a zero-sum game—it’s good for all of us when other people become smarter and wealthier. We shouldn’t be overly worried about other nations developing world-class universities on par with ours; what we should be worried about is whether we are really producing the great teaching and research that our students, and our society, deserve.

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He is working on a book about the globalization of higher education, forthcoming from Princeton University Press in 2010.


  • Phil Baty on December 18, 2009 10:03 AM:

    The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are changing. The magazine has ended its rankings partnership with QS and will now produce the annual rankings with Thomson Reuters. THE and TR are currently consulting on a new more rigorous and transparent methodology. For news on the development of the rankings, and to have yoru say, vist:
    Phil Baty