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College Rankings: What Are They Good For?

Despite what might have started out with good intentions, college rankings have done more harm than good.

Rankings do not do what they purport to do: provide high school students with an accurate, unbiased guide to selecting the best college fit for themselves and their budgets, and to serve as an impetus to colleges to excel and to improve their rankings. They do nothing to give even the slightest hint of what sets one good college apart from another.

This is because the college ranking system has created an unprecedented level of competition among colleges that blurs the essential differences among them and hides the true indicators of value while forcing them to jack up tuitions and fees well beyond current economic realities.

Rankings have turned colleges into homogenized marketing machines, with all the bells, whistles, and false hype that come with all popularity contests.

A review of the top 100 National Universities shows that while they have moved a few places up or down each year in the U.S. News and World Reports rankings, this has occurred with little or no apparent justification. Nor has it resulted in any real change in their average ranking from at least as far back as 2008. This is despite the expenditure of enormous sums of money on student recruitment, professorial salaries, marketing campaigns, building projects, and high-visibility, high-budget athletic programs.

Most importantly, these rankings in no way communicate the uniqueness of each of these great universities. In no way do they help you or me to differentiate in any material sense the qualities of each that would make this or that institution the right one for me or my child.

None of four major pillars that make up over 75% of each college’s score get to factors that truly matters such as academic philosophy, mission, the quality and methods of instruction, the breadth or depth of academic majors, student rating of their educational experience, or other “intangibles” that can make the difference when searching for the best college match.

Most alarming is that none of these factors are reliable, unbiased measures of quality[i]. For example, undergraduate academic reputation is measured through questionnaires sent to over 4500 college faculty and administrators across the country who are asked to rate each of the nation’s colleges and universities based upon what they know about them. This process is fraught with bias and unreliable information.

If we look at indicators such as graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, student selectivity, we see that they are all based on self-report. They are unaudited without any way to ensure their accuracy. And, with the impact these data have on the rankings there is much pressure and innumerable ways for a college to cut the data to make the college look great, if that is their intent.

Any of these data points can be, at best, less than accurate or, at worst, manipulated to the college’s advantage. But, more to the point, do these data points add up to what makes a college the right place for a student?

Not likely, unless, of course, if what matters most and upon which a potential college choice is made is the aura of prestige that the college has and has had a hand in creating. In that case, the rankings are all that matters.

I leave you with a reminder from Colin Diver: “Participants in the higher-education marketplace are still looking primarily for academic integrity and quality, not the superficial prestige conferred by commercial rankings. They understand that higher education is not a mass-produced commodity but an artisan-produced, interactive, and individually tailored service of remarkable complexity.”

[i]See Colin Diver, former president of Reed College and sociologists Michael Bastedo and Nicholas Bowman for more on this subject.