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The Truth About College Rankings

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America is obsessed with rankings. College rankings are very important to students and parents. Or rather, those who publish college rankings are constantly telling us how important college rankings are. How important are college rankings, really? The simple fact is that rankings are more important to colleges and universities than they are to students or parents.

What are college rankings? Rankings are a way of evaluating the perceived value of a college or university based on pre-defined factors. Publishers usually survey colleges, universities and students to obtain information related to a variety of factors. The most common factors evaluated include number of students enrolled, student-faculty ratios (number of students per instructor), out-of-pocket costs (the amount left over after scholarships and other financial aid are applied), financial aid availability (what percent of students receive financial aid), sports, demographics (breakdown of enrollments by sex, ethnicity, age), quality of life, partying habits, and availability of sports and/or extracurricular activities. Rankings essentially tell you how well a particular aspect of a college or university is marketed or how well students and others perceive a factor related to a college or university. Whether one or more factors is significant to you is entirely personal.

U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings are probably the most well known. They first published a college rankings edition of their magazine in 1983. The list consisted of only the opinions of university presidents. In 1988, the editors introduced a much more scientific process. These formulas are altered on a yearly basis. Take a look at the ranking criteria on the U.S. News and World Report’s web site and read the methodology section.

There are many critics of this ranking system. They cite numerous problems. The peer assessment category is especially puzzling. Twenty-five percent of a school’s score depends on the opinions of other schools. Unfortunately college and university presidents all over the country assess schools without knowing much about them. Then there is the faculty factor – the faculty-student ratio, benefits, full time to part time, and those with a PhD. Many students can tell you that grad assistants or TAs teach about half the classes for full time professors. Judging the quality of professors by how well they are paid or what degrees they hold is extremely superficial and often misleading. Another category is alumni contributions. Contributions are largely determined by the amount of money an alumnus makes. I would imagine contributions are going to be greater at a college like Harvard than at Western Illinois University. Fundraising success is not a true indication that a college is the “best”.

Unfortunately, the highly influential U.S. News & World Report annual guide to “America’s Best Colleges” pays little attention to measures of learning or good educational practices. These rankings do not, in any way, give you information on the quality of the instruction you are likely to receive. The potential value of an education/degree should be calculated on your needs and educational/career objectives rather than on a set of criteria important to another individual or agency. There is no “best” college in America because everyone’s educational needs are different. This renders these rankings inadequate.

Several dozen college and university representatives have plans to assemble in 2007 to discuss plans for a more “educationally relevant” alternative to the U.S. News rankings. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities is also about to launch what it considers a superior set of data about colleges.

Even with these criticisms, the rankings matter deeply on college campuses. Administrators wait with bated breath for them to arrive each fall. Some campuses even hire independent consultants to help figure out how improve their ranking. Students and parents treat the rankings as gospel.

The rankings are also taken seriously by the magazine’s accountants. The college issues are frequently the magazines’ best-selling issue of the year. The magazine isn’t the only party profiting from the rankings. Test prep materials and private college consultants have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, thanks to a horde of students who will do anything to get into a top-ranked school. Universities with a solid position on the list often have a greater number of applicants, higher selectivity, and ultimately, higher tuition.

University officials have responded to the rankings placement of their institutions in a variety of ways. Some ignore the rankings. Some refuse to participate in the surveys. Many respond by altering or misrepresenting institutional data presented to rankings publications. SAT scores, for example, would appear to be the most unequivocal of all statistics. Some schools have submitted data that excludes scores from “special admissions”. One school reportedly left out the verbal scores of international students but kept the math scores.

A less-than-desired ranking can be a positive motivation for change. A school that finds itself ranked lower than its peers because of a lower retention rate might, for example, might make improvements to its counseling, tutoring, and advising services. Similarly, a school might break larger classes into smaller ones if its class size statistics looked unfavorable.

All college rankings have one thing in common – they are lists of schools. They can be very helpful in the college selection process by being sources of ideas for students and parents. This is particularly true of rankings that list schools geographically, by department, etc. Scanning the list might suggest a school or two that the student had not considered, or perhaps even heard of. Used this way, rankings can help expand the list of schools that can then be researched in more detail.

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