"It is important to understand that rankings are general statistics which means that they apply to different individuals in different ways. For example, up to 42% of a college’s rank is based on graduation rates. Nonetheless, college rankings are so deeply entrenched in our collective psyche that we will undoubtedly continue to recite them, and even depend on them, despite their shortcomings. There are certainly much better ways to rank colleges that would more accurately consider the needs of individual students."
Last year, the University of Chicago was ranked 6th in National Universities by US News and World Report. This year, it is ranked 12th. Similarly, Dartmouth went from 12th to 18th, and NYU went from 25th to 35th. Conversely, Columbia University went from 18th to 12th and UCLA went from 20th to 15th. For colleges that decreased in ranking by up to 100%, what did they do differently to account for such a drop off in performance? For those colleges that increased in ranking by up to 50%, what did they do right to earn their higher honors? In both cases, the answer is nothing. What changed is the ranking criteria used by US News and World Report. If you are one of those people who believes in the absolute value of rankings and would like to remain that way, you may not want to read the rest of this article. For those that dare to take a deeper dive into rankings to understand how truly limited they are in their ability to quantify quality to the point where colleges with absolutely no similarities are ranked against each other and unjustly compared to each other, read on!
First, it is important to understand that rankings are general statistics which means that they apply to different individuals in different ways. For example, up to 42% of a college’s rank is based on graduation rates. That statistic has a little to nothing to do with the quality of a college with respect to any one individual. If you are a student for which there is little to no doubt that you will graduate from college within six years and who is submitting SAT or ACT scores, then 42% of a college ranking is 100% inconsequential to you. If you are not submitting SAT or ACT scores, then that number jumps to 47%. In other words, based only on graduation rates, nearly half of a college’s ranking characteristics mean absolutely nothing to you. This astounding fact alone should be enough to make you want to forsake rankings forever. However, there is even more behind-the-scenes information that might surprise you.
Another 5% of a college ranking is based on the average debt that students will incur during college. An additional 5% is based on the percentage of students from a particular college whose average salaries four years after graduating from college are greater than the average salaries of high school grads after the same period. 20% is based on peer assessment, which I would argue is a valid, though unscientific, measurement. 8% is based on faculty salaries, and I would repeat my comments from the previous factor: useful, but unscientific. The next three factors are those I consider to be among the most important, but collectively they add up to only 15% of the college’s ranking characteristics. They are faculty salaries (8%), student – faculty ratio (4%), and full-time faculty (3%). Average standardized test scores account for 5%. The next nine factors account for a total of 0% despite being of paramount importance to a college’s actual quality. Some examples of these unweighted characteristics are field-weighted citation impact, publications cited in the top 25% of journals, class-size, terminal degree faculty, alumni giving average, and high school class standing.
Nonetheless, college rankings are so deeply entrenched in our collective psyche that we will undoubtedly continue to recite them, and even depend on them, despite their shortcomings. There are certainly much better ways to rank colleges that would more accurately consider the needs of individual students. These include campus setting and culture, geographic location, class-size, strength and breadth of individual majors, outcomes such as career success and salaries, strength of alumni network, graduate reviews, and many more.
The purpose of this article is not to bash rankings, but rather to clarify facts and point out that rankings may not necessarily promote healthy discourse or present accurate representation of a college’s quality. It would behoove individual families to do deeper research into colleges they are considering applying to rather than just relying on one or two ranking engines. Even websites that promote student reviews can be helpful as long as they are taken in context. And probably the most useful fact of all is this: virtually all colleges provide an exceptional educational experience that is as beneficial as students themselves make it. Regardless of which college a student attends, the value of the education received is equal to the effort that each student contributes toward that education.
By Neil Chyten