21 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Wanted: Consumer guide to American higher education

Since their beginning, the major tertiary ranking systems have attracted increasing readership and revenue for most of the publishers with each annual release. While their popularity has increased, their utility to parents and students considering study-abroad options has remained negligible at best.

As noted in my previous blogs, a few marginally helpful rankings and-or comparable data sources have emerged in the United States market. They include The Alumni Factor, College Miner and Washington Monthly.

Even with their exclusive US focus, in aggregate their coverage is hardly representative of the thousands of US institutions that would support detailed comparisons. Thus, many institutions that might merit serious consideration may be overlooked until a more comprehensive comparative data source emerges.

In spite of their narrow coverage, these three resources should be far more helpful than the major ranking systems if consulted together.

Unfortunately, though, these relatively new resources do not provide the depth and breadth of information that discerning international parents and students need in isolating the most promising student and institution fit(s).

Resolute searchers, with time to spare, might consult the massive Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). They will find breadth of data but not much currency or relevance.

The more user-friendly American Institutes for Research’s Delta Cost Project and College Measures may be marginally more helpful.

Coupled with the major rankings systems, these six other sources are still wanting. What is needed is a comprehensive, user-friendly source, akin to a consumer guide for international parents and students, exploring the array of US baccalaureate options.

A user-friendly reference

I have the temerity to offer the following suggestions regarding what might be included in such a user-friendly reference. The ideal guide would have two sections addressing two complementary concerns: value added and quality of life.

At a minimum, the former might include an array of metrics suggesting what value the institution offers in exchange for the expense of pursuing its baccalaureate. Many high quality teaching institutions already collect an array of value added data to internally manage and improve their academic programmes.

Their metrics often include Major Field Test and ETS Proficiency Profile, Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, Collegiate Learning Assessment and National Survey of Student Engagement data.

Furthermore, an institution could demonstrate value added by listing its academic programmes with national accreditation, and the percentage of graduates by major discipline admitted to graduate and professional study would suggest value added.

Finally, the results of employer-graduate school and graduate satisfaction surveys of the aggregate learning experience would also be helpful.

At a minimum, the quality of life section should provide a detailed description of the institution’s comprehensive soft landing programme that transits new international students from point of entry through their accommodation, dining options, institutional policies and procedures to their classes and graduation.

Besides introducing the campus’ academic, co-curricular, recreational and spiritual opportunities, the quality of life section should summarise the nature of the host and regional community.


If an entrepreneurial publisher could induce even a relatively small cohort of institutions confident of their value added proposition to make the data they already collect available for broad external comparison, a win-win-win result would emerge.

Parents and students would have convenient, one-stop access to an array of relevant comparison data. Participating institutions confident of their value added and quality of life would have enhanced access to a targeted market.

Institutions failing to post these data would signal a lack of self-confidence in their teaching-learning programming and quality of life environment no matter how impressive their major rankings system standing.

Finally, the entrepreneurial publisher would have strong revenue potential by addressing an as yet unmet consumer need. Higher education consumers are already paying for incomplete or irrelevant information that does not meet their needs. Publications with comprehensive and relevant data should draw readership and added revenue.

With no comprehensive published source on the immediate horizon, confident institutions could provide value added and quality of life information in an international folder on their websites.

Parents and students could make their comparisons and ask for clarification before submitting their application and corresponding fees. Much of the requisite information may be readily supplied on demand by targeted institutions after formal application and associated fees have been paid.

The emergence of user-friendly comparative data sources, whether in a comprehensive published form or by confident individual institutions, will spell an end to the hegemony of major rankings systems. They may continue to meet the self-affirming needs of tier-one research institutions and those who aspire to a higher rank.

The alternatives suggested will better serve the vast majority – parents and students – of their current readership.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business, Daejeon, in the Republic of Korea.
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