Thursday, October 17, 2013

Open Data and the Future of Rankings

The Chronicle posted an essay by Jeff Selingo entitled "What the Open-Data Movement Means for the Future of Colleges." The points made are, of course, as applicable to law schools as they are to higher education generally. In fact, most of what the essay discusses describes the competitive world law schools already live in--a world driven by rankings systems that are based on data about the credentials of incoming students, graduation rates (in the case of law schools, bar pass rates), graduates' employment and income rates, and other easily quantifiable factors. But the essay makes some interesting observations and predictions about the impact of the availability of information on college ranking systems.

Selingo notes that in the dark ages when the last government shutdown occurred (1995-96), information about colleges was not readily available on the Internet. People got their information about colleges from a book that could be found in a library or purchased at a bookstore or by contacting the school directly and waiting for information to arrive by mail. By comparison, today, of course, information about colleges and universities (and law schools) is freely available on many websites, including the schools' own websites.

Selingo goes on to predict that the open-data movement will spark the development of new rankings systems-including Obama's proposed college ranking system--based primarily on graduation rates and graduates' earnings, and that these rankings systems will drive students away from underperforming schools.

What Selingo acknowledges and what law deans already know, is that, while graduation rates and graduates' income levels are important data points, there are a lot of other important factors that should go into a student's decision about where to go to college (or law school)--factors like what did graduates learn while they were at that school, what skills do graduates take into the marketplace, what impact will graduates make in the future. These factors are harder to measure and so are harder to reflect in rankings systems.

But Salingo "imagine(s) new players, such as LinkedIn, getting into the [rankings] business because it could combine new government statistics with a wealth of information it already holds about its users: where they went to college, the jobs they have held, the skills they possess." Over 800 million people use Facebook and many of them identify their college (and law school), along with their employers and other information that would provide insights about particular institutions' graduates and create more sophisticated ways to capture data that would be relevant to prospective students.

Selingo concludes that "college leaders should take the lead in defining the value of their institutions and then figure out how to measure it before others do it for them." Over the past few days, as I have perused the many wonderful e-newsletters I have received from law schools across the country (and from all across the "rankings" spectrum), it has occurred to me that law schools are already very good at identifying the value of our institutions--we just need to figure out how to measure it and convey it to prospective students in a way that enables them to make meaningful distinctions among law schools. Until we do, US News is going to keep doing it for us.






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