August is here—and so are college ranking guides. With a new college admission cycle looming, the editors will be plying us with a parade of guidebooks that presume to quantify the mythical pecking order of colleges. Before you get out your credit card or rush to printout a list of the “best” colleges, take a moment to consider the following tips and commentary for making sense of the rankings:
1. Rankings are not science. The data collection process relies on self-reported information from colleges and universities. While the use of the Common Data Set has helped to standardize the reporting process, institutions are still able to manage the manner in which their data is assembled. Should an institution choose to abstain from submitting data, at least one publication’s (U.S. News & World Report) editors will resort to a formula that creates values for that institution.
2. Know how reputation is measured. The variable that carries the greatest weight in the U.S. News & World Report rankings is reputation. While there might be consensus around this variable, you need to know how it is measured. Each year, the editors send three ballots to each participating school 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. What do you think? Could you provide such a rating for each of the high schools in your state? It is highly doubtful just as it is highly doubtful that these three voters can make valid assessments of peer institutions across the country. Consequently, fewer than half respond and many who do complete the rating form admit that they are making educated guesses. To address related concerns, the editors have also solicited ratings from selected guidance counselors as well. The result is the same as the participation rate among all voters is abysmally low. That said, what do the rankings really tell you about reputation?
3. Rankings change because… Change is glacial in nature on college campuses yet every year the outcome of the rankings changes. Why? At least one ranking guide (US News) admits to changing or “tweaking” its formula each year—further evidence of the subjectivity involved as well as the need to maintain uncertain outcomes from year to year.
4. Apples and Oranges. While many institutions might look alike on the surface, they are very different with regard to programs, instructional styles, cultures, values and aspirations—another reason why trying to rank them is a daunting, if not impossible, task.
5. Be discriminating. The definitions of “best” are essentially editorial opinions dressed up in pseudo-facts. Contrived to sell magazines, they may not—and, in fact, should not—be the beginning point for your college selection process. Don’t become blinded by these definitions of the “best.” You need to arrive at your own definition of the best that is rooted in your needs, interests and learning style.
6. Project yourself into the picture. What do the editors of ranking guides 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? What tangible takeaways do college rankings offer that apply to your situation?
7. Look for evidence that rankings will make a difference in your college planning outcomes. More specifically, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” Unlike the purchase process with regard to other commodities (cars, appliances, etc.), the ultimate choice of a college is the product of a mutual selection process. Rankings don’t get kids into college nor do they necessarily point you in the direction that is best for you.
Over the last 25 years, the college-going process has been turned upside down by ranking guides. Whereas the focus should be on the kids—and what is best for them—college ranking guides put the focus on destinations that are presumed to be most desirable. In reality, they are artificial metrics for quality in education that detract from sensible, student-centered decision-making.
Herein lies the disconnect. If ranking guides are truly useful to consumers, why do so many students apply to schools where the chances of gaining admission are less than one out of four? And where is the usefulness of college ranking guides when barely half of the students entering college this fall will graduate from any college during their lifetimes?
Frankly, the rankings phenomenon is growing wearisome. The notion that all of America’s best 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.
Among other things, rankings promote a destination orientation and an obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. Where the student might be headed 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 easy to lose sight of one’s values and priorities as well as the full range of opportunities that exist.
Keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. Resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. Instead, focus on developing a list of colleges based who you are, why you want to go to college and what you want to accomplish during your undergraduate years. And don’t lose sight of how you like to learn. Stay student-centered and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.