The Ranking Metrics at AcademicInfluence.com

Our Insistence on Objective Rankings

AcademicInfluence.com ranks academic institutions and their disciplinary programs. Our claim to fame in such rankings is to rank by influence as computed by our InfluenceRanking engine. Our approach to academic rankings via influence sets us apart from other academic rankings, and our contribution to the academic ranking business stands or falls with the valuable insights to be gained through our influence-based rankings.

Nonetheless, we don’t see influence as the only legitimate criterion for academic rankings. People interested in higher education come with many questions about how to compare academic institutions and disciplinary programs. Some of these questions may have clear answers, others less so.

What is the richest college or university? This question has a clear answer, and requires simply looking at the endowments of schools (it’s Harvard). What is the most beautiful college campus in America? This question raises a matter of taste, and admits no compelling answer. Do you like mountains, then try Colorado. Do you like gorges, then try New York’s Finger Lakes. Do you like open prairies, then try Kansas.

At AcademicInfluence.com, we believe that prospective students are best served by being able to rank schools in many different ways in line with the many different questions they may have. Different queries require different ranking metrics. Let a thousand flowers bloom. And yet, we insist that they be flowers and not weeds. That’s why we stress “ranking metrics” rather than “ranking approaches.”

At AcademicInfluence.com, we insist that our rankings be objective and even quantifiable, where the numbers are not drawn out of a hat but have a clear transparent meaning so that in principle anyone with access to the same input data will calculate the same numbers and get the same ranking. Why is this important?

The Problems with Subjective Rankings

All the leading ranking organizations employ ranking approaches with subjective elements. Many depend heavily on self-reports, in which survey responders detail their own personal assessment or perception of a school’s characteristics, such as reputation. The problems with self-reports include lying (making a school seem better or worse than it may actually be), misperception (simply being mistaken in one’s perception of the school), and moral hazard (perverse incentives to portray a school one way rather than another).

Rankings of schools by alumni on a five-star scale or by their salary data after graduation face these same problems, as well as a selection effect: What sort of alumni tend to give a five-star rating to a school from which they graduated? What if people like to think well of things into which they invested time and money? What if they want to warn people about mistakes they’ve committed? And which impulse is stronger? In any case, such rankings are not only subjective but can be skewed. Ditto for salary reports: Do people working minimum wage upon graduation really want the world to know this fact, even if they share this knowledge anonymously?

We’re not saying that subjective ranking approaches like this have no value. At their best they provide social validation, which can be valuable. It’s just that at AcademicInfluence.com, we have become convinced, through our long experience with academic rankings, that such ranking approaches, especially without extensive caveats, do more to mislead than enlighten. In place of rankings that employ subjective elements, AcademicInfluence.com therefore focuses on ranking metrics whose numbers are based on precise mathematical calculations and which are drawn from unambiguous, publicly available data. No hand-waving, no charades, no voodoo.

Our Growing List of Ranking Metrics

What follows is a growing list of ranking metrics developed at AcademicInfluence.com, along with links to their explanation at on this website:

  1. Influence: This is our bread-and-butter ranking metric, as computed by the InfluenceRanking engine. For its explanation, see ”Methodology: How and Why We Rank by Influence″ and ”The InfluenceRanking™ Engine: The Nuts and Bolts of Our Ranking Technology.”
  2. Concentrated Influence: This metric, derived from the previous one by controlling for school size, seems especially apt for capturing what is meant by academic excellence and thus for characterizing the best institutions of higher learning and the best disciplinary or departmental programs. For its explanation, see ”Concentrated Influence.”
  3. Desirability: Unlike influence, which looks to people (faculty and alumni) who are already associated with schools, desirability asks how students admitted to two or more schools vote with their feet in deciding to attend one school to the exclusion of others. Desirability asks how schools rank if we simply watch the enrollment decisions of students in light of the schools to which they were admitted. Whereas rankings based on influence are faculty- and alumni-centric, rankings based on desirability are student-centric. For an explanation of desirability, see ”What Is Desirability?