The Truth About College Rankings

The Truth About College Rankings

Every year, as a new college admission cycle begins, there’s always a lot of news about rankings. Editors from U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, The Princeton Review and others have once again begun to provide a parade of ranking guides that presume to reveal the “best values” in education, identify the best “party” schools or, simply, quantify the mythical pecking order of colleges.

Before you get out your credit card or rush to print out a list of the “best” colleges, though, take a moment to consider the following:

1. Rankings are not science. 

The data collection process relies on self-reported information from colleges and universities. While the use of the Common Data Set has helped to standardize the reporting process, institutions are still able to manage the manner in which their data is assembled.

Moreover, editors are able to creatively interpret the information they do (or don’t) receive. For example, if an institution chooses to abstain from submitting data, the editors of at least one publication (U.S. News & World Report) will resort to a formula that creates values for that school based on the values of its presumed peers.

2. Rankings are highly subjective. 

Consider, for example, reputation. In the U.S. News & World Report rankings, reputation carries the greatest weight. On the surface, that might make sense — until you come to know how reputation is “measured.”

Each year, U.S. News & World Report sends three ballots to each participating school asking the recipients (president, academic dean and dean of admission) to rate peer institutions on a scale of 5 to 1. The assumption is that these individuals know higher education better than anyone else and are best positioned to make qualitative assessments.

What do you think? Could you provide such a rating for each of the high schools in your region or province? It’s highly doubtful, just as it is highly doubtful that these three voters can make objective assessments of peer institutions across the country. Consequently, fewer than half respond. Many who do complete the rating form admit they are making educated guesses.

To address some of those concerns, the editors now solicit ratings from selected high school guidance counselors as well. Not surprisingly, the participation rate among all “voters” continues to be very low. That said, what do the rankings really tell you about reputation?

3. Rankings change each year because …? 

Change on college campuses is glacial in nature, yet every year the outcome of the rankings changes. Why? At least one ranking guide (U.S. News) admits to changing or “tweaking” its formula each year — further evidence of the subjectivity involved as well as the editors’ need to maintain uncertain outcomes from year to year.

4. Apples and Oranges. 

While many colleges and universities may look alike on the surface, they are often very different with regard to programs, instructional styles, cultures, values and aspirations — another reason why trying to rank them is a daunting, if not impossible, task.

5. Be discriminating. 

The definitions of “best” are essentially editorial opinions dressed up in pseudo-facts. Contrived to sell magazines, they might not — and, in fact, should not — be the beginning point for your college selection process. Don’t become blinded by these definitions of the “best.” You need to arrive at your own definition of the best that is rooted in your needs, interests and learning style.

Frankly, the rankings phenomenon has grown wearisome. The notion that all of America’s best colleges can be ranked in any context (“party schools,” “academic reputation,” etc.) is foolhardy. It makes too many assumptions about people and places, cultures and values, quality and — believe it or not — fit.

Among other things, rankings promote a destination orientation and an obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. Where the student might be headed becomes more important than what is to be accomplished or why that goal might be important or how the institution might best serve the student. When blinded by the power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few colleges or universities, it’s easy to lose sight of one’s values and priorities as well as the full range of opportunities that exist.

Keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. Resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. Instead, focus on developing a list of colleges based on who you are, why you want to go to college and what you want to accomplish during your undergraduate years. And don’t lose sight of how you like to learn. Stay student-centered and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.

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Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College, is Director of Student Advocacy at Revolution Prep. Read his blog at:



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