President Cabrera reflects on Institute rankings

Graphic showcases the Institute’s rankings as reported by the “U.S. News and World Report” from 2018 through 2023. Following a peak in overall institute rankings in 2020, Tech’s overall ranking and standing in public universities has declined, whereas the undergraduate engineering ranking has stayed the same. // Graphic by Rahul Deshpande Student Publications

Every year, various news organizations and agencies release lists ranking education institutions on both national and international levels. These lists often prioritize different aspects of the educational experience as part of their criteria for naming the best universities, with some ranking agencies gaining greater popularity over the last few years. 

Dialogue criticizing ranking agencies and their methodologies is not new to the discourse relating to institute prestige and reputation. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona claimed that college ranking lists were “a joke” and said, “many institutions spend enormous time and money chasing rankings they feel carry prestige, but in truth do little more than Xerox privilege.” Despite this criticism, parents and students alike flock to the annual releases to determine what colleges offer the best educational experience and higher education institutions use rankings to corroborate their prestige. 

The Technique had the opportunity to interview President Ángel Cabrera last week in relation to the release of the new “U.S. News & World Report” rankings. 

When asked to what extent he considered these rankings to be a good metric of Institute success, President Cabrera said, “College presidents love to hate rankings, right. They’re out there saying rankings are terrible. Obviously, how do you compare this university with other universities? In some ways we’re infinitely better and in other ways, they are. It also depends on who is asking the questions and what they care about. So, rankings by definition, are imperfect.” 

However, Cabrera recognized that students and families often turn to rankings given how many options of where to go to school there are.

“From my perspective, the more rankings the better, as long as the rankings make it very transparent what it is they’re measuring, so that way each of us can go and look for the ranking that captures what we individually care about,” Cabrera said.

Elaborating on the recent “U.S. News & World Report” rankings highlighting the top U.S. universities and higher education institutions, President Cabrera emphasized, “The U.S. News [rankings] that are full of inconsistencies internally, rank us as the number four engineering school in the country. That’s huge. That’s not public or private. [We’re] number five in computer science and that’s huge because there are hundreds of universities. [We’re] number 19 in business, number one in aerospace [engineering], number one in industrial engineering and number two in biomedical [engineering]. Three fourths of our students major in business, computing or engineering, so we are among the very best in the programs that most of our students major in, and you would expect that our overall institute ranking would be somewhere between four and 20. But no, we’re number 44 and this [ranking] is by the same organization.”

President Cabrera mentioned how these inconsistencies can be explained by a deeper look into the various factors that encompass the ranking system used by the “U.S. News & World Report.” 

He explained that rankings for majors and specific programs are asserted through reputation; surveys are sent to the respective deans of individual programs at universities across the country and they independently rate their peer institutions. 

Based on those ratings, all of the Institute’s engineering programs are ranked within the top five programs in the country. However, those peer ratings do not account for graduate success, return on investment, student satisfaction and a myriad of other factors essential for creating the approach necessary to understand a specific program’s value. President Cabrera went on to describe that overall institute rankings are only partially contingent upon academic reputation amongst a certain university’s administration and leadership. 

One such consideration is the amount of money spent per student in each program, which results in equating greater spending costs per student to higher rankings for an institution. This metric can create discrepancies due to differences in funding for public versus private universities with varying student populations, along with creating a quasi-model for how higher education institutions should be spending their liquid funds, which is not always a one-size-fits-all scenario. In Tech’s case, spending less money per student has allowed the Institute to reduce tuition costs for the 2022-2023 academic year, which President Cabrera “… is very proud of. The whole criticism of higher education is that tuition is getting higher and higher every year and that people are having a hard time paying for college. Turns out, in the last three years, our tuition and fees have gone down.” 

Conversely, there are aspects of the ranking system President Cabrera feels Tech can improve on to become a better overall institution. He explained that, “They have a measure of social mobility. For example, our Pell Grant students graduate at some of the highest rates in the country and we are very proud of it, but we have recruited Pell Grant students at a more [stagnant] rate in the past few years [in comparison to other institutions], and our rankings have suffered because the U.S. News & World Report says you’re not helping sufficient numbers of low income students. I agree with them in that regard and we need to do better.” 

In terms of whether the new rankings have created concerns about student retention or ensuring Tech’s reputation of prestige amongst peer institutions, President Cabrera emphasized that during his tenure, college applications received by the admissions office have gone up by almost 40%. He also said, “We are not measuring our success by what rankings say. I always warn colleagues against that because the moment we do that, we outsource our strategy to an editorial room in an office in Washington D.C. But [rankings] do have a lot of influence and I’m not naive.”

For his long-term plans during his tenure, President Cabrera feels his strategic plan focuses on a more universal focus of distributing resources to all different majors and programs at the Institute. 

Focusing on Tech’s mission statement of “Developing leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition,” President Cabrera talked about his commitment to interdisciplinary education and opportunities to achieve that mission. 

“Once you realize that technology alone doesn’t do the trick, you need to know what aspects of the human condition need improving,” Cabrera said. “That’s the realm of economics and policy and philosophy. To deliver on our mission, we need all of the above in equal quality and amounts.”

Reflecting on his own experience as a student at Tech, President Cabrera mentioned the ease with which he was able to receive his doctorate in psychology at the Institute despite his electrical engineering background. He emphasized that Tech offers not just curricular pathways for a more multidisciplinary approach to higher education, but also tangible extracurricular opportunities and resources for students to explore new disciplines.