It’s ranking season, and Alex Usher had another post today about problems with ranking methodologies. There are many complaints about the rankings, but nonetheless colleges and universities take them seriously. If students, parents and governments are going to take them seriously the schools have no choice but to follow. UBC is certainly no exception—the first sentence on the UBC website about page is “The University of British Columbia is a global centre for research and teaching, consistently ranked among the 40 best universities in the world.” Since US News has just put us at 30 who knows what we will be saying next year.
Some schools have devoted tremendous efforts to the rankings game. The September issue of Boston Magazine describes Northeastern’s 15 year effort to climb the US News Rankings from #162 in 1996 to a tie for #42 in 2014.
But one new ranking strikes me more as more interesting. The LinkedIn university rankings tool. It’s not surprising that LinkedIn would get into this game, rankings are a big business. Very big. The 2013 release of the US News and World Report led to 2.6 million unique visitors in one day. This is just one more step in LinkedIn’s efforts to peel off parts of the education service space as the sector disaggregates.
LinkedIn minces no words about the focus of their rankings. It isn’t about the best profs, or the best parties, or the awesome climbing wall. The LinkedIn rankings are “Based on career outcomes. From university to career, see which schools are launching graduates into desirable jobs.” Their tool works by identifying the most desirable employers in an industry sector, then using the LinkedIn data to identify which schools produced the most employees at those companies. (Size adjusted of course.)
It would be easy to dismiss the LinkedIn rankings. We could say that they are too narrow, listing only 8 fields for US schools and 5 for Canadian schools. (The Canadian fields are: Accounting, Finance, Investment Banking, Marketing and Software Development.) Or we could dismiss their methodology. Maybe measuring where people from given universities get jobs is too crass a measure—or maybe crass in this case just means on target. Or we could say it looks like a prototype, not a honed product. Which it clearly does, but time will change that.
I think LinkedIn is playing from a position of strength here. Not just because they have 300M users and 1.5B USD revenue to build on. It’s because their slogan—relationships matter—gets right to a key part of the value universities offer their students. Last week I went to a presentation from UBC’s Student Recruiting office at my son’s school. The speaker was direct about this, saying that one advantage of a school like UBC is being able to get letters of recommendation from leaders in the field. Such letters she said, can have more impact than other letters. I think that’s something we as research faculty believe.
But how should students judge schools based on that value? If major surveys are heavily weighted by medical school research dollars, and if US News can be gamed by focusing on selectivity and yield, then students may not be getting a very good indicator of what impact letters might have in software development, or banking, or…
How can students know which school has the ability to write the most impactful letters in their field. LinkedIn, is in the business of knowing who knows who, and it doesn’t take much thinking to imagine that they can extend their rankings tool to take advantage of this kind of information. Or other kinds of network effects they can infer might have an impact on the long-term value of attending a given school. After all, if I want a job at Google, then does it really matter how many students my school doesn’t accept? Might it matter more how many senior people at Google came from a school I’m considering?
On the one hand the universities could sit back and enjoy this. After all this is a new entrant targeting someone other than us for a change. Those rankings companies deserve a good shake up! But anything that increases the transparency students have into university outcomes is going to lead to turbulence. The schools know how to play the existing rankings game, and new games can lead to new winners.
Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.