Last month, during the first session of the graduate seminar I co-teach every fall, one of our students asked a simple question that kicked off an hour-long debate: What do we mean when we say that Carolina should be the best public university in the nation?
Does that mean the most affordable, the most selective, the most productive in terms of research dollars or delivering the most service to local communities? Do we measure by the economic outcomes of our students, the discoveries and publications of our faculty, or the level of trust we earn from the people of our state?
There are a thousand different ways to define “best” when it comes to a massive public institution like ours.
That complexity is why there’s so much angst over college rankings, which take all of the fantastically diverse goals of a place like Carolina and try to boil them down to a single number. According to U.S. News & World Report, UNC-Chapel Hill is the fifth-best public university in the nation, an accolade we’ve now held for 22 consecutive years. There’s reason to be proud of that ranking, since it depends on important factors like high graduation rates, strong faculty support and low student debt. It’s especially gratifying to be recognized as “best value” among all public universities for the 18th consecutive year.
But we should be clear-eyed about the limits of any list that claims to measure overall college quality. U.S. News puts outsized emphasis on reputation, a hazy thing to measure and often just a reflection of name recognition. The rankings can also encourage statistical gamesmanship as colleges look for shortcuts to boost their place on the list. The controversy over years of alleged misreported data from Columbia University drives home just how difficult it is to create foolproof metrics.
It’s also impossible for any simplified ranking to take account of distinct missions at different universities. Carolina could bolster its U.S. News ranking by charging much higher tuition or rejecting far more of our applicants. We could put less emphasis on welcoming rural and first-generation students or redirect resources away from public service, focusing more on the selectivity that US News values. But that wouldn’t meet anyone’s idea of “best” when it comes to UNC-Chapel Hill, where being proudly public is part of our DNA. Topping the charts is great, but not if it means compromising our core mission.
It’s been heartening over the past several years to see more rankings that recognize the amazing pluralism of American higher education, with different institutions serving different needs. Carolina has an intensive research mission, so being the 6th most innovative campus in the world (Reuters) and bringing in more than a billion dollars in federal research grants every year are important metrics for us. This recognition as a research and innovation powerhouse helps drive our state’s economy by attracting more industry partners and creating more jobs in North Carolina.
There are now prominent rankings that measure economic mobility for graduates, an arena where Carolina performs well — but not as well as some other UNC System schools like Elizabeth City State and Western Carolina. We can learn something from the way those campuses help vault low-income students up the income ladder, and I love collaborating with university leaders across North Carolina to share ideas.
To serve a big and diverse state like North Carolina, we need to celebrate distinctive missions and unique strengths at different schools, something that’s impossible in a ranking that weighs Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State on the same criteria.
The people of North Carolina should be proud that they’ve built and sustained the nation’s first public university at a level that brings national recognition and a top spot in major college rankings. But I hope they are even prouder that our University remains committed to its founding ideals, to a set of values that can’t be captured in a number.
Kevin Guskiewicz is a neuroscientist, a professor of exercise and sport science, and the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.