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Society & Culture - Campus & Community

New Trends in Universities Rankings Focus on Student Outcomes, Where Drexel Shines

October 19, 2016

Drexel University.
Drexel ranks in the top 8 percent of U.S. colleges and universities according to a new ranking that focuses on how well students perform after graduation, rather than on their test scores and aptitudes going into college.

A Philadelphia-area high school adviser once challenged a college-night group of students and their parents to re-examine why they viewed highly selective universities as such role models. After all, he asked, what was the magic in accepting top-scoring applicants who, four years later — lo and behold — were still high-achievers? 

His devil’s advocate stance was that institutions of higher learning should be judged not only on how high-fliers fared, but also on the majority of students who — based upon test scores and grades — inevitably fill the ranks of freshman classes on most campuses across the country. In other words, shouldn’t a university’s value be based on how students’ prospects — for employment, lifetime earnings and personal fulfillment — have been nurtured, enhanced and improved by their college years?

But that hasn’t been the traditional approach in the world of college rankings.

The most eagerly awaited measure, the U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 “Best Colleges” list, relies heavily on average SAT scores and acceptance rates, among other “input” factors.

Drexel University has done well on the U.S. News rankings — rising several places this year to 96th among the top 100 national universities, and 65th overall in value. But for many University officials, as for many peers, the yardstick didn’t seem to fully measure what schools had to offer, according to Mark Freeman, vice provost of Institutional Research, Assessment and Effectiveness. Still, the traditional ratings juggernaut rolled on.

Until now.

A shift toward ranking universities more heavily on results — how graduates fared in the job market, in particular — has been under way for several years, led by efforts in the Obama administration. On a quiet Saturday morning two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education altered the academic playing field by issuing its new College Scorecard —  a mountain of previously unavailable W-2–based income data from college graduates 6–10 years after first enrollment, broken down by institution of origin. Meanwhile, human resources consultants at Payscale.com also began crunching numbers on incomes self-reported to their website. Then, Brookings Institution experts waded in with a set of rankings that they said measured the value-added from a college degree.

But with a new set of ratings issued this year in late September, this shift toward rankings measuring outputs over inputs may well have reached the tipping point.

The new rankings are a joint effort by The Wall Street Journal and London-based Times Higher Education. They grade American colleges and universities, and also provide a companion rating of universities from around the world.

Each school’s ranking is based on factors in four categories: what students do after graduation, a university’s resources, how well a school engages students, and the overall learning environment and degree of diversity.

Drexel University educators regard each of those factors as already being important aspects of a Drexel education. Engagement, diversity and career preparation are key elements of what’s happening in Drexel classrooms and labs, in the workplace settings where Drexel students do their co-op experiences, and in Drexel’s interconnection with the city of Philadelphia and the broader public domain.

The new The Wall Street Journal / Times Higher Education ranking seemed to concur: Drexel was ranked in the top 8 percent of U.S. colleges and universities.

Drexel leaders say they’re that not surprised at how well Drexel performed in this new focus on a broad range of student outcomes. “Our students are outperforming,” explains President John A. Fry. “That makes the case better than anything about the value of a Drexel education.”

The new rankings landscape is important on two fronts. First and foremost, it offers new generations of college-bound students and their families more comprehensive tools as they decide where to apply. Now their decision-making process includes sound, reliable information that enables them to estimate future earnings potential, job satisfaction and the ability to achieve other life goals.

At Drexel, the emphasis on experiential learning through workplace co-operative placements already equips students with job-searching skills and, in many instances, job offers upon graduation. With 96 percent of graduates working or enrolled in graduate or professional training two years later, they also look forward to a higher-than-average long-term earnings potential. The new rankings only underscore that successful track record.

Beyond that, the broader rankings are taking hold at a time of great ferment in academic circles around the issue of price and affordability. Free college for all was a talking point in presidential politics this year. And for several years, a smattering of smaller colleges and universities, including some in the Philadelphia area, have moved to slash tuition rates or, if resources allow, substantially boost student aid.

Whether these and similar moves achieve more than merely reducing sticker shock — aid packages might well be smaller, for instance, at a school whose tuition has been trimmed — remains to be seen.

For now, Drexel officials say they plan to hold a tight grip on costs, finding efficiencies, as well as pushing ahead with fundraising efforts that, for the past three years, have had record-breaking success. They’re also getting the word out to Drexel candidates that an average first-year student can expect a financial aid package which reduces the cost of attendance by more than 40 percent.

On the other side of the ledger, vice provost Freeman says Drexel’s “extremely strong showing” in the new rankings fuels optimism that prospective students will eschew traditional rankings and make college decisions based on the opportunity a school offers. On this new playing field, Drexel leaders think the University can compete with some of the best.

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