I don’t know of a single college or university administrator that doesn’t want to move up in the U.S. News rankings (possibly in order to improve their brand). These efforts can do harm, increasing pressure to publish, causing rifts between faculty and administration, and creating tension between departments, but how likely are they to result in a better ranking? A recent paper in Research in Higher Education by Gnolek, Falciano, and Kuncl attempts to answer this question. From the abstract:
Results show that for a university ranked in the mid-30 s it would take a significant amount of additional resources, directed in a very focused way, to become a top-ranked national university, and that rank changes of up to ± 4 points should be considered “noise”. These results can serve as a basis for frank discussions within a university about the likelihood of significant changes in rank and provide valuable insight when formulating strategic goals.
The paper discusses research universities, but I assume that similar forces are at play at liberal arts colleges. Check it out (unfortunately, it is behind a paywall).
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