The Truth About College Rankings

Are rankings a legitimate tool for assessing colleges or do they simply reflect a savvy marketing idea without any statistically valid content behind it? Peterson’s categorically dismisses rankings as “good press – but that’s all.” U.S. News and World Report counters that the rankings are a good way to “weigh the relative academic strengths and weaknesses of the schools that you’re considering.” Whether you are a fan of the U.S. News rankings or not, there are several things you should think about before making any big decisions about college based on information from lists of ranked schools.
#1. The rankings process may appear rigorous, but it is largely subjective.
Princeton Review gets its information from student surveys. U.S. News relies on both institutionally reported data and subjective information, the latter being used to address factors such as school reputation. U.S. News gives certain criteria more weight than others when it calculates overall rank, a process that continues to be challenged from year to year. Should certain qualities be more emphasized, and if so, how should this be determined? Or should the various areas in which schools are ranked remain separate rather than being blended according to some magical formula to determine an overall ranking? Some schools make all the individual factors available on their web site, so that you can assess each component by itself.
#2. Rankings categories do not always measure what you might think.
Because of the pressure to score high in the rankings, some schools change programs or policies in a way that may make them fare better in the rankings, but may not benefit their students. Others may even go so far as to misrepresent information. Even seemingly clear-cut criteria like faculty-to-student ratio are in fact difficult to define: who’s included as “faculty”? Full-time professors, adjunct faculty who may only be at a school for a semester, campus staff… the options are practically endless.
#3. The underlying data for some schools may be outdated and incomplete, if not missing altogether.
Certain schools have boycotted the U.S. News rankings and refused to submit data. As a result, they have dropped from the top ranks. However, this drop reflects a political decision rather than a drop in educational quality.
#4. There is a difference between what is measured and what really matters.
Are the criteria that are ranked the ones that tell you what you want to know? How do you statistically evaluate student experience, enjoyment, or learning? Or how well professors teach their subjects? A list of schools can never convey the nuanced information and impressions that will confirm whether or not a school is a good match for you.

In conclusion, it is important to maintain a broad perspective, making rankings only one consideration, if that. Also, remember that much of the most important information cannot be found from rankings, and usually a campus visit or informational interview – or even visiting the school’s website – will tell you a lot more.