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Want to improve your college rankings? Play the math game, Jacksonville University management professor says in new study

By Phillip Milano

University administrators looking to improve their “best college” rankings in reports such as the one issued today by U.S. News & World Report may want to pick up the September issue of the journal Scientometrics and read what a Jacksonville University management professor has to say.

Dr. Marie Bougnol, assistant professor of management at JU

Dr. Marie Bougnol, assistant professor of management at JU, used a rigorous mathematical analysis to show that focusing on a single attribute at your college gives the best chance at boosting your showing.

“These college rankings are controversial but are here to stay, and are important for many reasons, one of which is promotion. So we’re saying if you are interested in trying to climb higher, we offer an optimal strategy, which is to not try to improve in many areas but really focus on one at a time,” she said. “It turns out that it gives you the best bang for the buck.”

An article on the full study, which was conducted with José H. Dulá, professor of operations management at Virginia Commonwealth University, will be published in the next several weeks online and in print in Scientometrics, an international peer-reviewed journal focusing on Quantitative Analysis.

Many higher education institutions that “play the rankings game” try to improve on a number of measured attributes related to faculty, class size, student quality, finances, financial aid, educational programs and more, Bougnol said.

But while it may appear counter-intuitive, Bougnol and Dulá used the mathematical modeling tool known as linear programming to show that the optimal strategy is instead to focus on a single attribute. The solution is to laser in on the attribute where the ratio of the cost of making the increase to the weight the ranking scheme gives it is the highest.

Does she realize she may be on to something that will make her a popular subject in the offices of many a college administrator?

“Well, we’re not trying to change the face of the world, but we know there’s interest out there and that there hasn’t been a paper like this on the strategies we offer. It’s of high concern among administrators at universities. Ultimately, if you rank high, you’re going to promote that.”

So, what do JU’s own administrators think of Bougnol’s findings?

“I’m not a big fan of these rankings in the first place, which can be manipulated, and this shows another flaw in the whole ranking model,” said Terry Whittum, JU Vice President of Enrollment Management, stressing that he was giving his personal opinion and not speaking for the university. “I can see colleges looking at these findings to try to improve their rankings, but students should really do their own research to see if a school is for them.”

The upcoming article is titled “A mathematical model to optimize decisions to impact multi-attribute rankings.”

Bougnol and Dulá published a separate study on university rankings, titled “Validating DEA as a Ranking Tool: An Application of DEA to Assess Performance in Higher Education,” in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Operations Research in 2006.