Why You Should Take College Rankings With a Dose of Cynicism
By Peter Van Buskirk on September 10, 2019
A new college admission cycle is fast approaching —and so are college rankings!
For nearly 40 years, the appearance of college ranking guides has preceded the college application process as editors ply anxious, would-be college applicants (and their parents) with rank-order solutions to what are presumably the most desirable destinations. In short order, a parade of ranking guides will once again reveal the “best values” in education, identify the best “party” schools or, quite simply, quantify the mythical pecking order of colleges.
Unfortunately, rankings too often become short-cuts in what can otherwise be a daunting college selection process.
In reality, though, a college process that is truly student-centered cannot tolerate shortcuts—there are no absolutes or guarantees of success. It’s impossible to make valid assessments in ranking colleges, even in a destination-oriented selection process. By attaching numbers to the “best” colleges, though, families are led to assumptions about quality that too easily bypass matters of “fit” for the student.
The concept of the “best,” then, is illusory, especially in this context. When ranking guides presume to identify the “best” colleges by any comparative measure, they make broad assumptions that rarely apply to individual circumstances. Moreover, they favor a small list of elite colleges and universities that change position annually for no reason at all—except for editorial tweaks to the ranking formula each year that ensure such shifting.
Separating Fact from Fiction
If you hadn’t already guessed, rankings should not be taken at face value. Tempting as it might be to project yourself into everything you read on the subject, now is a good time to reign in the eagerness and proceed with a healthy dose of cynicism. Here’s why.
Rankings are not science.
The data is far from pure. In fact, it is self-reported by colleges and universities. While the use of the Common Data Set has helped standardize the reporting process, institutions are still able to “manage” the manner in which their data is assembled and presented. Consider ratios. Ratios are very important in the ranking process—i.e. ratios of students-to-professors, students-to-endowments, applicants to accepted students, and beginning students to those who graduate. Imagine the latitude colleges have to strategically interpret the related numbers and you get the picture.
Editors creatively interpret the information they do (or don’t) receive.
For example, should an institution choose to abstain from submitting data, at least one publication’s editors (U.S. News & World Report) will resort to a formula that creates values for that institution based on the values of its presumed peers!
The measurement is flawed.
In the U.S. News & World Report ranking guide, reputation is the variable that carries the greatest weight. It’s been that way since the first ranking guide. On the surface, it 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 institution asking the recipients (president, academic dean and dean of admission) to rate peer institutions on a scale of five to one. The assumption is that these individuals know higher education better than anyone else and are best positioned to make qualitative assessments.
Research has shown, though, that these three voters find it difficult to make informed, objective assessments of peer institutions across the country. Consequently, fewer than half respond. Many who do complete the rating form admit to making educated guesses. In short, the most important variable turns out to be the least substantive!
Change in rankings is guaranteed!
When you think about it, real, measurable change is glacial in nature on college campuses. Yet, college rankings change every year. Why? At least one ranking guide (U.S. News) admits to changing or “tweaking” its formula each year (most assuredly to perfect the process!)—a further reminder of the profit motive behind rankings. After all, ranking guides don’t sell when the outcomes don’t change.
Rankings are generalizations.
You must ask yourself, “What do the editors of ranking guides really know about me/my student?” Where, for example, do they talk about the colleges that are best for the bright, but timid student who wants to study classical archaeology, or the student who learns best through engagement in the classroom, or the young person whose sense of self and direction is still emerging?
They don’t. Instead, they make sweeping generalizations that distract you from engaging in a selection process that makes sense for you.
Why You Should Be Discriminating
Over the last 30 years, the college-going process has been turned upside down by ranking guides. The notion that America’s colleges can be rank ordered in any context (“party schools,” academic reputation,” etc.)—that the mythical pecking order can actually be quantified—is foolhardy. It makes too many wandering assumptions about people and places, cultures and values, quality and—believe it or not—fit.
Whereas the focus should be on you—and what is best for you—college ranking guides put the focus on destinations that are presumed to be most desirable. As such, they are superficial metrics for qualitative elements in education that hold little meaning to you.
Instead, rankings encourage an obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. When that happens, the destination itself 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 distracted by the blinding power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few institutions, it is It’s easy to lose sight of one’s values and priorities as well as the full range of opportunities that exist when distracted by the blinding power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few institutions
Herein lies the disconnect. If ranking guides are truly useful in identifying the “best” colleges for students, why do so many apply to schools where the chances of gaining admission are less than 25%? And where is the usefulness of college ranking guides when barely half of the students entering college this fall will graduate from any college—ever?
The Best College Fit for You
The definitions of “best” when applied to colleges are essentially editorial opinions and marketing slogans dressed up in pseudo-facts. Don’t become blinded by these definitions. Instead, focus on arriving at your own understanding of what is best for you based on your needs, interests and learning style.
The best college fit for you will:
- Offer a program of study to meet your needs—including a general studies or liberal arts curriculum if you are still finding your academic/career direction.
- Feature a style of instruction consistent with the way you like to engage in learning—a learning environment that will enable you to work with your strengths as a reader, writer, debater, designer or experimenter.
- Challenge you with a level of academic rigor commensurate with your ability and preparation—a place that will push you to realize all of your potential.
- Engage you in a community that feels like home—it includes people with shared values and interests around whom you don’t have to put on airs. You can be yourself.
- Value you for what you have to offer—it will admit you and provide the financial assistance you need. It will also demonstrate a broader commitment to investing in you and your success.
Keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. In particular, resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. None of the ranking guides can deliver the “best” within the context of the elements of “fit” outlined above.
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. Stay student-centered and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.