09/13/2011 10:52 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2011

Want a Cheaper, Better College Experience? Stop the Rankings and Let Go of Tradition

The annual college rankings from U.S. News & World Report were released Tuesday, and you'll find plenty of news coverage and commentary here and here about the influence (or hype) of this annual guide.

The rankings are on my mind these days as I embark on a reporting project about the college of the future, and specifically about the hurdles to change in higher ed.

Rankings play a potentially large role in stifling innovation on college campuses. As some lower-ranked colleges try to game the system in order to improve their scores, they essentially try to follow a roadmap driven by the magazine's methodology. The U.S. News rankings have "become the tail that wags the dog," The Chronicle of Higher Education noted in a special report on the rankings in 2007. "The magazine's annual college guide does not merely compile data on what colleges are doing. It has changed the way many college officials determine their institutional priorities."

The long-term effect is that colleges begin to look more alike than different as they chase the same "input measures" valued by U.S. News: student selectivity, faculty-student ratio, average retention of freshmen, and financial measures, like financial resources per student, alumni-giving rate, and faculty salaries. As The Chronicle noted in its 2007 report (and The Washington Post in an article just this month), the U.S. News methodology has really hurt the rankings of public colleges.

But even if an alternative rankings system were to suddenly take hold among the public, it's unlikely that we'd suddenly see most universities change the fundamentals of how they operate. Plenty of other barriers to innovation exist in higher ed. Here are some other hurdles, in no particular order. Please use the comment section to disagree or to add your own.

Tradition. A tight grip on how things were done in the past exists in almost every industry, but in higher ed the link is particularly strong among the consumers--students who want the prototypical undergraduate experience and parents who fondly recall their own college days. In other industries, it's the consumers who usually force innovation by changing their habits. Take the innovation of online courses. That delivery method has gained broad acceptance among college presidents, but the public is far more skeptical about its quality, according to new survey data released by the Pew Research Center, in association with The Chronicle. Perhaps the only thing that will loosen that grip to the past is the rising price of a traditional college education in the face of a continued bad economy.

Federal and state dollars. Few of those dollars come with incentives to change (unlike the Obama administration's Race to the Top funds in K-12, which some argue have prompted change). In higher ed, a few states tie a small slice of their appropriations to the performance of public colleges, but again, like the U.S. News rankings, most of that performance is based on well-known input measures. The vast majority of government dollars, of course, go to students, and none of those dollars encourage them to think differently, except for those who run up against the government's limits on undergraduate debt ($31,000, but some borrowers can go above that by dipping into the private loan market).

Oversight. In the name of consumer protection, the federal government has established an elaborate system of oversight, both directly and indirectly through accreditors. Some entrants, like Burck Smith of StraighterLine, which offers entry-level college courses for $99 a month or an entire freshman year for $999, argue that such controls curb innovation. For example, StraighterLine students are not eligible for federal financial aid because the company is not accredited, a requirement to get federal dollars. But StraighterLine can't be accredited because it offers only classes, not degrees.

Shared governance. Higher education operates like few other industries, where the governance of the enterprise is shared by the employers and the employees. Yet there seems to be as much distrust of the "other side" in higher education as there is in any worker-management relationship. College leaders blame the faculty for resisting needed change or dragging it out; faculty members blame administrators for unwise decisions and misguided priorities. Is there any campus in the United States where shared governance is strong and the college is seen as innovative?

Higher-education associations. As a reporter and editor, I am constantly in touch with the various higher-education associations about their concerns, but I never really thought about them as a barrier to change until I read an essay by Dominic J. Brewer and William G. Tierney in a new book about innovation in higher ed, Reinventing Higher Education. They argue that the associations are in the business of "preservation." They cite publications from the American Council on Education, the main higher-education association, that do not suggest that "significant changes are either imperative or even necessary." They write that "the underlying assumption is that the system works relatively well, and innovation is relatively unimportant compared to the ability to expand the current structures that characterize the status quo."