The Psychology programme at Caltech was once identified as one of the top 25 programmes of its type by the National Research Council. Unfortunately, as Brewer et al point out, Caltech didn’t have a Psychology programme.

Lights on the RiverGreat moments like these in the history of university rankings underscore the importance of an institution’s overall reputation on everything it does, what Brewer et al refer to as the “halo effect”. But it also points to the emphasis placed on research productivity: high-ranking institutions are those with faculty who have won the most rewards and captured the greatest volume of external research funds.

“Institutions do not build prestige in the student market by being innovative or by identifying and meeting new types of student demands. Rather, they build prestige by essentially mimicking the institutions that already have prestige”. (link)

The most direct route for an institution that wants to move up in the rankings is to mimic the behaviour and structure of those institutions at the top of the ladder. This limited notion of what constitutes “the best” and the type of competition it leads to is, first of all, one of the factors leading to increased tuition levels, which can, in turn, reinforce the hypothesis that the best institutions are also the most expensive. (See this and this analysis of NYU, for example). But it also draws attention away from teaching and learning.

“Prestige is expensive to seek, and the rewards come only to the victor.”(link)

Online Education’s Role in Reconfiguring How We Evaluate Institutions

The growth of online higher education may prove to help reconfigure how institutions are evaluated — drawing more attention to instructional quality; here’s why:

~ By virtue of its relative unfamiliarity, online education generates a greater focus on instructional design. To move from the well-established and familiar classroom format to the online space requires the institution and faculty to rethink the process of creating and supporting learning. (Instructional designers are occasionally told by the faculty with whom they work that the process of creating an online course was the first time in their careers that they had had extended conversations with someone about instructional strategies.)

~ The quality of the student’s experience in online education is primarily determined by the quality of instruction; other aspects of the university experience, such as student affairs, parking availability, are less central.

~ Non-elite institutions are often the fastest growing and most ambitious institutions in online education. To a greater extent than elite institutions, these upstarts (e.g. SNHU, WGU) compete on the basis of instructional value.

~ Online education offers new opportunities to measure student learning that, once reported, provides the basis for identifying quality in teaching and learning.

These characteristics of online higher education won’t singlehandedly make instructional quality the means by which institutions rise to the top rungs of our current ranking systems. Many students will continue to try to enrol in the most prestigious institutions with highest admission standards. The more exclusive the institution, the greater its value in the labour market. Yet the rise of online education may work alongside other developments, such as the utilitarian approach to education taken by the growing number of adult learners, to reconfigure how institutions are ranked and the relative importance of instructional quality.


Keith Hampson, Ph.D. is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximising value.