Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's Mid-August - Must Be College Ranking Season

Today the U.S. News & World Report published its annual Best Colleges 2011, the granddaddy of school rankings that students and their families too often use as the definitive source and arbiter for academic quality. Sure, USNWR provides a detailed explanation of its methodology as if to suggest transparency. Yet it still fails to convince this reader that the formula inputs offer anything but a highly subjective assessment that does little to assist students in finding schools that are the right fit and that will provide a meaningful and fulfilling college experience.

This year USNWR tweaked its criteria, with the most significant adjustment being the weighting of input from other education professionals. Though this now accounts for 22.5% rather than 25% of the total ranking, the methodology still places far too much emphasis on some subjective measure of a school's reputation. The good news is that only 15% is determined by administrators from competing institutions who I’m certain rarely if ever step foot on the college campuses they are judging. Even if they do, is this not a conflict of interest? For the first time high school guidance counselors have a say in the rankings and make up 7.5% of the 22.5% reputational factor. I am skeptical whether this actually helps students make informed college decisions. Most high school counselors know that students would be better served by considering fit over someone else’s opinion of a college’s place on a list that has questionable criteria.

Here is my question for every student and parent who feels compelled to look at the college rankings: what is there about this list of colleges and the way it is presented that gives you any insight about the academic strengths, the quality of life, the social scene, or the support services, academic and otherwise available at each school? I am not suggesting that all of the factors are meaningless. For example, I also believe that graduation and retention rates are important. However, a couple of statistics do not tell the whole story. The top schools on each of these ranking lists, for the most part, are all well endowed and can provide substantial need based aid. What about colleges of quality that cannot afford to be as generous with financial aid? In this economy many students are forced to take a leave from their education due to lack of adequate funds to pay tuition and support themselves through school. In other words, the economy is hurting retention numbers for some fine colleges that cannot spend as much as they would like on aid. My point is, too little information about what drives the numbers often leads one to draw the wrong conclusions.

But is it a “good” college? My own 17 year old has finally learned to stop asking me that question, though when she occasionally slips, she quickly recovers with, “I know, I know…don’t confuse selectivity with quality.” She’s finally catching on! Isn’t it curious that the colleges with the lowest rankings also have the lowest acceptance rates? The correlation between acceptance rate and a ranking which is supposed to order schools by some measure of “best” is especially troubling to me.

U.S. News & World Report is not the only publication to issue its assessment of colleges this month. Forbes.com recently published its list of America’s Best Colleges which has many surprises that will have you scratching your head, especially when compared with the USNWR rankings. And lets not short change Sierra Magazine’s current ranking of the Greenest Colleges. If you are not happy where your own alma mater ranks on any of these lists, be patient. Another ranking is sure to be released shortly.