Florida shows U the ranks

by Matt Graham

The business of ranking colleges is an inexact one.

So how will the University know when it has achieved its goal of becoming one of the world’s top three public research institutions?

“There’s never going to be a ranking system that answers that question,” said John Ziegenhagen, director of University accountability for the Office of Planning and Academic Affairs and a member of the metrics and measurement task force.

But University officials have to start somewhere, and to that end they are using a college ranking system the University of Florida developed.

Peter Spear, provost at the University of Wisconsin, laughed when told about the University’s strategic positioning plan and said there are about 20 schools in the country that want to be “in the top three.”

But Ziegenhagen said it is more important that the University keep its eye on the goal of creating change, calling the plan to be in the top three “an aspirational goal” rather than a concrete one.

The Florida rankings, which the University has used for the past several years in its Plan Performance and Accountability Report to the state Legislature, is widely seen as the most objective ranking of research universities.

Ziegenhagen said the rankings are helpful because they allow University officials to get an idea of what other top schools are doing and can help them set benchmarks.

Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of the Indiana University School of Education and an adviser for the Florida rankings, said the Florida system is unique because the numbers come from government databases and the rankings don’t factor in opinion.

The Florida system measures research universities in nine categories: doctorates granted, national academy members, faculty awards, post-doctoral appointees, total research expenditures, federal research expenditures, endowment assets, annual giving and median SAT/ACT scores.

But the rankings do have their weaknesses. Gonzalez said the rankings don’t measure student learning and are difficult to apply to liberal arts departments.

Both Spear and Gonzalez said their institutions don’t rely too heavily on any rankings.

“We don’t necessarily change what we do in order to do better in one or more of the indicators,” Gonzalez said. “But it certainly informs our thinking about what our priorities are.”

Some regents said the rankings have their weaknesses, but aren’t a bad place to start.

Regent Peter Bell said the University needs to find a way to monitor what students do after they graduate from the institution, measuring accomplishments as well as resources that the Florida system emphasizes.

Regent Lakeesha Ransom said she would like to see a system with measures that take diversity into account, noting that Minnesota’s demographics will continue to change.

Eric Ling, a member of the Minnesota Student Association and the metrics and measurement task force steering committee, said the Florida rankings come up short in their measurement of undergraduates.

“The only really direct measurement of undergrads is the standardized test scores,” he said.

Ransom said the University needs to develop a measurement system that is “the University of Florida plus.”

Though the Florida rankings are relatively comprehensive, Bell said he still has not seen “clear benchmarks for what it means to be one of the top three public research universities.”

How the University answers that question will do much to shape its future.