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American Higher Education Needs a New Club

The Association of American Universities operates its club in such secret that most presidents who yearn to get into it have no idea when another exclusive invite might be extended. So a dozen or so university presidents who aspire to be members were probably disappointed on Monday when the AAU announced it was welcoming another expensive private institution to its ranks, Boston University.

Membership in the AAU has become the benchmark for research universities to show the world that they have made the big time. As a result, university leaders who want to be part of the group seem willing to do almost anything to prove they are worthy, including spending their own tuition dollars to gain an advantage in the federal research rankings that matter so much to the AAU.

Many times, those efforts turn into a fool’s errand: A Chronicle study last year found that half of the universities that had doubled their own spending actually fell in the federal rankings. That’s not exactly the type of behavior that higher-education associations should encourage in an era of public outcry over rising tuition prices.

But like the U.S. News & World Report rankings, AAU membership is an important external validation of quality—in the AAU’s case, of research prowess—in American higher education. Both are frequently mentioned by university presidents who come through The Chronicle’s offices and are asked what success looks like to them as they try to improve their institutions. It’s either rising in the U.S. News rankings or getting invited to the AAU (and sometimes it’s both).

Both U.S. News and the AAU reward exclusion. The fewer students an institution admits, the better off it does in the U.S. News rankings. The AAU metrics tend to penalize large public universities (one of several reasons the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was ousted last year).

It’s not that we don’t need a strong association that represents the needs of research universities, such as the AAU. But if the two biggest prizes in American higher education are built on exclusion, perhaps what we need is another benchmark, another external validator.

What if American higher education had another association—another club that counterbalanced the U.S. News rankings and the AAU? Its membership would also be limited, but it would reward other measures that we as a country thought were important: access for low-income students, affordability for the middle class, quality teaching, research that helps solve local and regional problems, and for public universities, a focus on enrolling in-state students rather than just higher-paying out-of-state students.

Like U.S. News and the AAU, the methodology and guidelines for membership would be public, and over time, institutions would crave an invite. The best way to change American higher education for the future is to realign the current reward structure. And starting another club to compete with the AAU and the top of the U.S. News rankings might be just the right start.

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