UM mustn’t be only local pick for the top 500 universities
Written by Michael Lewis on October 17, 2017
As South Florida’s economic development leaders wrap up their entries in the sweepstakes to lure fast-growing global corporation Amazon’s second headquarters, we’d love to see how they’re finessing the issue of higher education.
Amazon has made clear that the winner (the entry deadline is today) will already be home to top-flight research universities turning out a well-educated workforce to fill its planned 50,000 high-level jobs over the coming years.
Proving that a South Florida educational juggernaut exists will get more difficult if Amazon officials read the Wall Street Journal, which three weeks ago published its annual ranking of four-year colleges and universities.
We aren’t fans of such ratings. In this case, despite the seemingly impartial breakdown of each US college and university in 15 categories of data that the researchers weight in importance, the figures are virtually all subjective. What is left out may be more important than what was included, and how each category is weighted is a matter of perception.
That said, however, ratings that pick in order Harvard, Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Duke and Yale as the top six institutions are far from off the wall. In other words, the data as weighted produce reasonable – if not necessarily scientific – results.
Amazon will doubtless use these rankings or a variant as it assesses our region as a future home. And the rankings don’t make us look good.
Florida as a whole is home to 11 of the top 500 colleges and universities on the Wall Street Journal list, which is sort of OK if you figure 50 states should each have 10 on the list.
But if you look at population of those states, Florida has nearly 21 million of the nation’s 323 million people. Our fair share of top universities by virtue of our population would be 32, not the 11 we have.
Further, only four of our 12 public universities, none of them here, made the top 500. South Florida universities on the list are the private University of Miami at number 44 – the highest ranking in the state – and Nova in Fort Lauderdale, at number 335.
Since Miami’s enrollment is relatively low – 16,848, with fewer than 11,000 undergraduates – it alone can’t be the engine to turn out those 50,000 Amazon employees, no matter how great it is.
Our largest local university by far, Florida International University with about 56,000 enrolled, did not make the cut for the top 500. Clearly, size was not a criterion for the rankings. Florida’s largest University, the University of Central Florida with 60,000 students, barely made the cut at number 480.
We can draw several lessons from this. Despite the fact that every college or university has good students and you can in fact get a good education almost everywhere, corporations looking to new locations or expansions are going to look at rankings, not for quantity so much as quality. If we don’t like our spots in or out of the rankings, we need to do things to change them.
One logical action is to fund public higher education in Florida better. In fact, that’s true throughout the nation. Public institutions don’t appear in the rankings at all until the University of California at Los Angeles enters at number 25 and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at number 27. Public investment in higher education pays off just like investment in the public schools. It might in fact be easier to measure that economic impact in higher education as graduates move directly into the workforce.
Second, South Florida has a university education gap even compared with the rest of this state. We are the largest population center but have no public universities in the top 500 ranking. That might be a function of a legislature that favors the older public institutions to our north or a lack of local leadership to demand both more money for our public institutions and more quality from them. The number of graduates is not the yardstick for quality.
Again, our local schools turn out many fine successful graduates, and even graduates of Harvard and Yale can be total flops. A pedigree from a top 10 or top 50 or top 500 school is no guarantee of success, and college dropouts can and do run successful businesses.
But if we are trying to build a business community that lures the Amazons and their smaller cousins to set up shop here, we have work to do in burnishing our brand in higher education.
It’s great that the UM is in the top 50. Deservedly so.
But for South Florida’s sake, it shouldn’t be alone.