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Anchoring Effects in World University Rankings: Exploring Biases in Reputation Scores

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According to Brewer et al. (2005), prestige is “directly related to an institution’s ability to meet consistently its customer demands”. From a business and marketing study perspective, the university is the industry, its enumerated customers are the “students, alumni, employees, corporations, governments, and private individuals”; whilst its revenue markets are: student enrollment, research funding, public fiscal support, and private giving. As the institution demonstrates its ability to meet the expectations and satisfy internal and external customer demands that builds reputation in higher education, directly attached is an increase in spending. From the emerging economic theory of higher education, increase in expenditures identifies with infrastructural and administrative support, heavy investments in admissions, recruitment, and tuition discount. Consequently, universities become more dependent on external funds to support the changing internal expenditure patterns as they “weigh…considerations… of institutional prestige… heavily… in organizational decision making”. In 2010, President Graham of XU aimed at a goal of $100 million in endowment; by 2016 he boasts $150 million to serve over 600 individual funds to satisfy its consumer demands and infrastructural changes. In a 2017 address on campus, President Graham summarizes best the meaning and implications of a sound endowment to higher education institutions.

“Giving to the endowment is an important investment in Xavier’s future as an institution. But even more so, it’s an investment in every facet of the world our students’ touch. The education they receive at Xavier becomes the foundation upon which they build their lives. Who these young people become and how they contribute to the greater good takes root in the classes, the service, the friendships and the overall experience they have at Xavier”.

Securing such a handsome endowment often means heavy dependence on investors as contributors to maximize institutional prestige. From the lens of the resource dependency theory organizations are inescapably bound to the conditions within their environment, and for such organization to survive they must devise the best way to maintain and acquire resources from the environment. The more the acquisition and security of available resources the more autonomy the institution, for this reason, at Xavier, money gained from the federal government, private giving, tuition, room and board and other academic entrepreneurial sources allow less dependency on the state as they work to satisfy internal (consumer and infrastructural) needs in an ever-changing environment. Simultaneously, the employment of predictable and achievable strategies for financial safety is a way XU intends to enhance resource availability and increase prestige, both of which are mutually reinforcing. Overall, the drive for internal efficiency and resource allocations is because higher education has increasingly become a commodity, its environment marked by intense competition and rampant consumerism, and its purpose connected to individual gain.

The theory of strategic balance provides perspectives on how the introduction of rankings and external validators may have informed the behavior of institutions. This theory examines the relationship between being different and being the same, as universities benefit from being different because they face less competition but also benefit from being the same because they are recognized as being more legitimate. For this reason, institutions view rankings as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competition, thus depending greatly on external ratings from external agencies such as the Carnegie classification criteria and USNWR. Yes, XU stand alongside many other prestigious universities in the same categories being a Basic M1, COD, and D-1 University considered a best-value school and the best regionally. However, XU prides itself, even more so, by boasting the highest enrollment in undergraduate programs, having more diverse undergraduate programs, ninety percent graduation rates and ninety-eight percent placement rate among graduates. Most importantly, Xavier has a long standing (since 1933) certification of accreditation and is constantly working towards maintaining such. Indeed, Carnegie has restructured its classification numerous times in the hopes of reducing the “tournament mentality” associated with the classification among higher education institutions (Carnegie Institute for Teaching, 2011), but, institutions continue to be motivated by this ranking system and thus believes in it. They will continue to invest more monies on specific expenditures that lent themselves to an increase in prestige by classification (shifting up-ward in the Carnegie level) simply because this differentiates them from their competitors, thereby increasing their survival and success.

Survival and success can also be viewed from the perspective of the institutional theory, supplementary to previous theories as it relates to institutional dependency of the ranking system. The motivation of institutions engaging in strategic behaviors is in response to the vague concept of prestige or rankings as institutional forces. Universities are viewed as social systems embedded in an ever-changing environment and this forces administrators to evaluate their standings or relative position to other institutions and judge performance based on what rankings measure. Studies have documented that rankings significantly change institutions’ resource allocations, admissions processes, and definitions of work in departments. So, collecting and reporting data becomes a major task for administrators, to motivate becoming more reactive, such as putting greater emphasis on entrance exam scores and offer generous grant aid to students with high test scores. In addition, administrators across countries, inclusive of XU, reported that global rankings influence academic activities, encourages change in research productivity of faculty, and improve the structure of teaching and output (e.g., the number of degrees conferred). XU’s conformity to institutional rankings is what ensures its graduates a high success rate in being marketable nationally and internationally. Simultaneously, it stimulates continuous improvements through strategic planning, an organized structure of governance, and guided investments simply because the quality of the school’s output is almost universally measured by the input, the intrinsic quality.

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Anchoring Effects In World University Rankings: Exploring Biases In Reputation Scores. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 24, 2021, from
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