Monday, August 24, 2009

College Rankings....Drum Role, Please!

Last Thursday the U.S. News & World Report published its annual rankings of U.S. colleges and universities. The release of the rankings is always accompanied by speculation and anticipation…who will win the coveted top spot? The aftermath is equally predictable: schools that have moved up in the rankings tout their good news, other educators criticize the emphasis on misguided measures to rate schools, and parents spin into a frenzy and fret that their child may not get into one of the “top 25” schools. What amuses and frustrates me about these rankings and the clout that U.S. New & World Report commands is that no matter how questionable the criteria or poor the participation in the surveys which are used to rate schools, people from all sides of the aisle still look to the rankings as some kind of authoritative assessment of quality across the spectrum of higher education institutions.

Today I was reading the newly released college ranking issue while my freshman daughter, who heads off to college in a week, looked on. “Can I see this?” she asked as she grabbed the magazine from my hand. I knew exactly where she was headed…straight to the page with the rankings of liberal arts colleges. She quickly scanned the list, starting at the top, of course, and followed her finger down the page, glancing nervously for her school. “It isn’t here,” she said to me in a panic. “It’s there,” I assured her, and then pointed to it on the page, much to her relief, but not to mine. Despite everything I preach about “good” being what’s good for the student, my own daughter still falls victim to the ranking hysteria (I guess I do too since I already knew where her college ranked).

I, like most college consultants and counselors, make a point of talking to families and students about right fit and the fallacy of thinking one can actually meaningfully rank colleges. Do these rankings measure where your child is most likely to thrive, find the optimal social environment, get the best education that meets his or her needs and interests and at the best value, or whether the college he or she attends will predict future success in life (however one chooses to measure that)? Of course not! Then why are we overly fixated on them? We get caught up in prestige, name recognition and factors that have nothing to do with whether or not our children will receive a quality education that may open their eyes to the many possibilities available to them.

Here are some truths about the rankings. The U.S. News & World Report bases its rankings on 7 key measures, with the single highest weighted factor being that of peer assessment (in other words, the impression held by presidents, provosts or admission deans at other, unaffiliated institutions), which accounts for 25% of the ranking. Many schools choose to ignore these peer assessment surveys and only 48% actually filled them out this year. And among those that did, some are alleged to have manipulated their answers with the sole purpose of boosting their own rankings! The August 19 issue of Inside Higher Ed ( has a disturbing article that points out how schools may be gaming the system just to climb up the rankings.

Here’s my point: the flaws in these rankings are so obvious to so many, yet we still get caught up with them and ascribe undeserved value to the ranking order. Even with no intended manipulation, why would an admission dean at another college know or have any say in the quality of the education or experience a student will have at a college he or she may have never even visited and why is this given so much weight in the rankings?

So please, ask yourself as you assist your sons and daughters through the college admission process about the utility of college rankings and whether this is a good way to choose a college where your child will excel and be happy. What makes one institution better than the one ranked directly below it and who decided that college A should be listed higher than college B? Some of you will read this and continue to give undue attention and importance to these rankings. At a minimum, I hope you will think twice before you make assumptions about the value of a four year college or university based upon where it stacks up according to U.S. News & World Report. I very much welcome the thoughts of my readers on this topic!

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