Rankings Aside, Colleges Are Not Like Football Teams

To the Editor:

I read “What the NFL Can Teach Colleges About Admissions” (The Chronicle, January 30), and I want to offer the following response:

Maybe leagues work in the NFL with Super Bowl hopefuls—those die-hard fans that are loyal even to losing teams—but colleges cannot so easily suffer the loss of market position and maintain a sufficient revenue stream over time. We’ve lost a portion of our ticket sales—more than $40-billion from states toward higher education since the early 1980s, a devalued Pell Grant, and waning endowment returns. Our mobile apps, Web sites, viewbooks, merit-aid programs, and other features that affect yield on offers of admission serve as shoulder pads against public skepticism and public policy makers who appear increasingly less financially committed to higher education. To ignore market position is to risk the essential revenue stream of tuition that is left to underwrite the high costs associated with commitments to scholarly pursuit, diversity, and access. These institutional ambitions are not exactly “hallow trophies” and they’re not easily sustained without the tuition revenue that a strong market position helps to produce.

The NFL analogy is an interesting one, but it fails to account for meaningful differences between colleges and football teams. These differences are also unaccounted for by US News rankings, which reduce the definition of institutional quality to terms unsuspecting consumers embrace without understanding the complexities inherent in comparing institutions. Our rosters (enrollment) are not the same size, we don’t play with the same positions (academic majors), or use the same rule book (required classes, credits, and credos). The distinguishing quality of American institutions of higher learning around the world is found in our great diversity. Our helmets (raisons d’être) are not all the same weights; we are not franchised to share one singular purpose. Nor are the necessary revenue streams to support the variety of possibilities in American higher education institutions designed to underwrite identical activities—thank goodness. Coercive pressure toward institutional homogenization from federal, state, and local government, accreditation agencies, the press, consumers, and US News rankings already threaten our own comfort with uniqueness—unlike every team in the NFL with Super Bowl aspirations, we’re not all seeking or delivering the same things (liberal arts vs. research, two-year vs. four-year, public vs. private, undergraduate vs. graduate programs, Christian vs. non-sectarian). This diversity might make us difficult to compare or to understand, but it doesn’t make us ruthless. Despite our shared challenges, the diverse ecosystem of American higher education is still the envy of the world.

As long as there are rankings, there will be pressure to maintain or improve our market position—to generate evidence for our value, which is necessary to persuade admitted students (and the parents who support them) of our worthiness. Even if something replaces US News rankings that is a more fitting measure of excellence or a more tasteful proxy for market position, the nature of our contest won’t change much—we’ll all clamor for position before the whistle blows so that we have a better chance of enrolling the students who help us achieve our institutional objectives. As tempting as it may be to believe, the pursuit of market position is not simply a “drive for institutional glory.” Many enrollment managers view a strong market position as closely related to the revenue that supports institutional commitments to social responsibility. With less and less non-tuition support, to ignore the impact of those who have captured consumer interest in simple rankings is to risk letting our lights go out. Only 71,000 adoring fans in the New Orleans Super Dome and several million viewers won’t wait so patiently for us to figure out how to get them back on.

Joseph P. Bagnoli
Vice President for Enrollment
Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
Grinnell College
Grinnell, Iowa

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