Higher Education

Do Online University Rankings Correlate with Size?

By Henry Kronk
September 01, 2019

University rankings from sites like U.S. News and World Report and others carry heavy influence with students deciding which college to attend. While they often claim to practice rigorous ranking methods, a growing body of researchers beg to differ. In a report published this week, researchers put forward new evidence showing that university size tends to correlate with its online rank.

“Does Size Matter? An Evaluation of Institutional Internet Ranking Metrics” by Professor Izzat Alsmadi (Texas A&M University) and PhD candidate Z. W. Taylor (University of Texas at Austin) was published in SSRN on August 27.

Measuring Size and University Rankings

Researchers in the past have found internet university rankings to determine everything from enrollment to funding. They also have an impact on hiring decisions and, of course, reputation.

The process by which university ranking sites determine their lists tends to be a complicated process. But web presence and web impact figure strongly into the mix. Webometrics determines their ranking exclusively via these factors. The Academic Ranking of World Universities factors aspects like faculty articles published in Science and Nature, and number of Nobel laureates on staff into their decision-making.

Using measures like these will obviously tip the scales in favor of larger institutions, with a few exceptions. In other words, it’s not a question of quality, it’s a question of volume. These measures and ranking sites leave other things like quality of education, type of institution, and others by the wayside.

As the researchers write, “therein lies a problem that extant research has not addressed. If the University of Texas at Austin enrolls over 51,000 students, employs over 3,100 full-time faculty members, and boasts an alumni base of nearly 500,000, how do ranking systems such as Webometrics, ARWU, and more mainstream and publicly-visible ranking systems such as U.S. News & World Report control for these populations?”

In short, they don’t. At least, not sufficiently in the eyes of the study’s authors. To determine the extent to which size corresponds to university ranking, the authors analyzed three data sets. These were: a small one including all eleven Texas A & M Universities, a large set involving the top 100 institutions in the U.S., and another large one from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) of the biggest universities in the U.S.

The Phenomenon Is Also Present with SEO, but Not Necessarily Social Media

For each set, the researchers found a positive correlation between size and internet rank to various degrees. To break things down, they developed a classification of institution size: small (less than 5,000 students), medium (5,000-15,000), large (15,000-30,0000), and huge (over 30,000).

The authors found that the average enrollment of the top 100 universities is 31,000, making ‘huge’ the primary type of institution.

They write, “Only nine universities from the top 100 enroll fewer than 10,000 students. Only three universities enroll fewer than 5,000 students. According to 2016 article in the Washington Post, roughly 40 percent of U.S. colleges and universities enroll 1,000 or fewer students. Another 40 percent enroll fewer than 5,000 students (Selingo, 2016). If around 80% of institutions share about 3% of likelihood to be in the top 100, while the rest 20% shares the rest of 97% of the top 100, ranking systems are clearly influenced by size.”

The authors also measured internet impact via SEO analysis and social media. In terms of Google rankings, the same phenomenon was observed: the larger the institution, they higher it was ranked.

But, interestingly, when it comes to social media, “correlation with size is not nearly as significant.”

Read the full study here.

Featured Image: Good Free Photos, Unsplash.