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The Conundrum of College Rankings

Since 1983, US News and World Report has published annual college rankings based on their collection of a variety of data points from participating colleges. Over the years, the publication has gained in viewership and notoriety and has become a resource used by many families when exploring options for their college-bound children. No doubt innumerable college choice decisions have been made based on the ranking recommendations of the publication. The annual rankings came out this week with a larger-than-ever shakeup, putting a brighter-than-ever spotlight on the results.

While wielding significant leverage, the publication has faced increasing controversy over the legitimacy of its rankings and the undue influence they may have on the public’s perception of colleges. Concerns have centered primarily on the methodology used, with critics expressing that some of the criteria are subjective and biased and that factors that weigh heavily, such as selectivity, have no real bearing on the quality of education received. In addition, colleges themselves manipulate the rankings by inflating their admissions statistics. Some colleges, for example, encourage more students to apply than they will accept, to lower their admission rate. The rankings tend to favor wealthy, private, highly selective institutions at the expense of more open-access colleges with more diversity, which perpetuates their popularity, increasing their selectivity. While colleges like to profess their ranking is unimportant, they can't help but be brought into the melee of competition in an effort to improve their status.

In response to the increasing concern over this influence, this year US News has revamped its metrics in an attempt to present a more balanced account of colleges. Among other things, they have added weight to their Social Mobility factors, taking into account the success rate of first-generation students; and they have removed factors such as small class size and alumni giving which previously helped the ranking of private schools. The reaction from colleges has been predictable. Dropping in ranking from 13th to 18th, Vanderbilt’s Chancellor Daniel Diermeir questions, “Will we have information that allows our parents and students to make informed decisions about college choice? Or is this just an annual circus that’s a distraction for everybody?” While Havidán Rodriquez, President of the University of Albany, which rose 48 spots, has a different take. “I’m not one to focus on rankings, but the changes this year tell a pretty compelling story about the mission of higher education,” he said. “U.S. News is finally catching up.”

Is the methodology better now? Perhaps. If the new metrics favor the aspects of a college that are important to you. But they also reinforce that the metrics themselves are subjective and that with the changes decided upon by the powers that be at US News, our nation's perspective of a college can be altered. So what is the best way to approach these rankings if we choose to use them to assist in building our college list?

My suggestion would be to look at the individual metrics included in the rankings that are of importance to you and compare schools by those objective statistics. Avoid putting too much emphasis on where the school ranks after US News has added up all of the stats that they have deemed important that year. Use US News as only one of many available resources and cross-reference the results. There are nearly 3,000 four-year colleges in the U.S. Certainly many of them could be a good match, beyond those that the ranking system perpetuates as the “top” schools in our nation.


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