05/27/2014 07:59 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Restating American Higher Education as a Public Good

There has been a good deal of discussion lately on America's college campuses about how to strengthen the reputation of an institution.

Much of the conversation focuses on the decision by the Obama administration to publish a consumer scorecard to help applicants and their families better understand their choices, relying in part on an intensified examination of outputs like persistence, graduation rates, and employment after graduation.

This "scorecard" debate illustrates the deeper conversation about how America's colleges and universities build their reputation. It is often said that it takes a long time to establish a reputation and even longer to lose it. Yet the direction of an institution-- influenced by the governance group of trustees, administration and faculty -- is to protect, consolidate, and strengthen what already exists.

Most presidents, board chairs, trustees, administrators and faculty have participated in numerous meetings where these debates rage. The prevailing attitude is, as you might expect, that the college or university must not sell its soul to improve its rating, for example, on the US News and World Report scorecard and other ranking measures. Indeed, the US News college rankings issue is typically derisively referred to within higher education as the "college swimsuit edition."

These noble intentions mask an even larger question. How do American colleges and universities enhance their institutional reputation, without sacrificing this reputation to the sloppy and often subjective research that forms the basis for published rankings? Does reputation matter?

To answer this question, America's colleges and universities must face some harsh realities.

First, the support for American higher education as a public good has eroded, now recast as a private benefit. This opens colleges and universities to "top ten" lists. Further, rankings sell in the media, whether print or social.

Once an institution becomes known as "expensive," "not academically curious," "alcohol loving," "jock," "unsafe," or "Greek," descriptions that may not even be negative collectively cast a pall over the college's reputation. This negative reputation has an impact on the bottom line, diminishing the potential pool of applicants who select out of consideration and limiting the very breadth in the student body that many institutions seek to improve.

Second, Americans are less willing to sacrifice for the private benefit that a college education provides. Once American higher education adopted a financial aid system that provided that the wealthiest families, state and federal government programs, and institutional endowments and discounting practices combined to adjust the cash flow to make college affordable, colleges and universities open themselves up to the "art of the deal."

At the country club, a merit scholarship and even a large aid package with attendant bragging rights indicates that a prospective college "wanted" the applicant. Further, most colleges have appeal processes where admitted students considering them can ask for a second consideration of the financial aid package furthering the sense that admission to college is a negotiated deal.

Third, America's colleges and universities have deeper internal battles to wage over rankings. Setting aside the outside influence of swimsuit edition and scorecard rankings, most colleges have not used their strategic planning to address the combination of inputs, quality, experience provided, and outputs that ultimately establishes this reputation.

Has it really come down to the question of how many alumni give or what competitors subjectively think about a college?

While they won't admit it, most college leaders regularly review the categories that affect rankings to determine at the very least what they can tweak at the margins. In fact, the pressure on division heads and senior administrative leadership can sometimes negatively impact an institution as staff refine, ignore, or interpret ranking categories.

There are some questions that form a starting point for consideration of how to build and strengthen a college's reputation:

  • What is the college's mission and how does this mission affect the development of its admissions policies, academic programming, residential life, and career services?
  • What does the college value and how can it present what it values positively to inhibit characteristics from being spun as negative stereotypes?
  • Is there a consensus among stakeholders about what the college is and where it is headed or are there tensions that must be first addressed internally?
  • Against whom do you actually compete and do the stakeholders, including the president and trustees, understand the difference between competition and aspiration?
  • How does the college communicate value?
  • Are the dots connected between admission, programming, staffing, facilities, and outcomes so that the college leadership presents a coherent message about what it is and can offer to prospective students?
  • Does the college understand that reputation is sometimes won first locally based upon the role that it plays in the region?
  • Does the institution have metrics to measure reputation that are strategic and appropriately competitive?
It's too late to stem the ratings tide. Ratings have become a lucrative business that divides American colleges and universities on terms that they did not establish but on which they are now judged. At the very least, American higher education must come to terms with this harsh reality in a less defensive way. Perhaps they could start by determining and communicating what they value. If Americans can better understand the value, they might be willing to see higher education for what it once was and should remain- a public good.