What is it about?

This study signals the presence of exclusion induced by institutional ranking in engineering faculty hiring and evaluates its adverse consequences on advancing the U.S. higher education system. It examines: (i) whether high-ranked engineering institutions are oversaturated with faculty who graduated from high-ranked engineering institutions in each engineering discipline and (ii) the inequality of economic, social, and educational opportunities induced by privileging graduates of high-ranked engineering institutions in the hiring process. With rankings established as the single norm of excellence, hierarchical systems were established that led higher education institutions to capitalize on reputation, prestige, brand recognition, legitimacy, and networking to achieve upward mobility. The best hiring from the best is then perceived as an avid quest by higher education institutions to attain the apex of the reputation and prestige pyramid. It gratifies the insatiable appetite of high-ranked institutions for securing external funding, strengthening the network of high-ranked institutions, increasing retention rates, and raising productivity, indicators contributing to calculating rankings and maintaining hegemony.

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Why is it important?

Hiring engineering faculty in the United States higher education is skewed in favor of graduates from high-ranked institutions, regardless of the discipline. Broken down by subfield, in the top 20 Universities, 78% of electrical, 76% of chemical, 71% of mechanical, and 67% of civil engineering faculty have academic origins in these same institutions. This faculty hiring process has created a "virtuous cycle" of favorable results for high-ranked institutions and a "vicious circle" of little to no intervention or support for lower-ranked institutions. This creates a "cycle of winners and losers" that is difficult to break. What does this mean? Lower-ranked institutions earn less money. From 2008 and 2017, out of $654.3 billion issued in total research and development expenditures, 24% was collected by the top 20, while only 6% was obtained by the bottom 20. The top 20 attract 14 times more students than the lower 20. Retention, graduation, and student loan default rates are 96%, 90%, and 2% for the top 20, whereas the bottom 20 rates are 85%, 66%, and 30%, respectively. The money is also geographically concentrated as the top 20 engineering institutions are in 10 out of the 50 states, with 65% of the top 20 ranked institutions in the Northeast and Western regions and 20% in the Midwest. This ranking system has established hiring practices that foster inequalities by excluding qualified candidates based on where they got their degrees. These well-qualified candidates will be discouraged from participating in the application process, knowing the chances of being selected as faculty in a high-ranked institution are extremely low.


High-ranked institutions are inducing a daunting challenge: privileging graduates of high-ranked institutions in the hiring process. The element of "inclusion" has indeed been affected by institutional rankings through a high selectivity of candidates who graduated from high-ranked institutions. Upstream of the faculty hiring process, equal opportunity is dominant in employment advertisements and the hiring pool of higher education institutions. However, downstream, the faculty hiring process is riddled with selection biases of known and unknown criteria that further skew the resulting outcome in favor of a candidate from a high-ranked institution.

Alireza Ermagun
George Mason University

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This page is a summary of: A systematic exclusion induced by institutional ranking in engineering faculty hiring: Introducing a cycle of winners and losers, PLoS ONE, December 2022, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0275861.
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