College rankings are good for selling magazines and college guide books, but are they good for students? Most likely not. “No current ranking system of colleges and universities directly measures the most critical point—student performance and learning,” said former Secretary of Eduction Margaret Spellings. Not only are the various criteria for rankings debatable, they often do little to help students understand what kinds of programs are compatible with their learning styles, interests, social lives and financial needs.
Each Ranking Has Bias
There is no numerical value that can describe a college. So reviewers have to invent various types of criteria that can be quantified. Some of these criteria are fairly straight forward: tuition, acceptance rate, teacher to student ratio. Firstly, how much these factors impact the student experience is debatable, and the weight each criterion is given is subjective. Secondly, there are kinds of criteria that must be gathered from answers that are themselves subjective.
U.S. News values the number of full-time professors, financial resources, graduate performance, and alumni giving. While this is valid data, it is also favors colleges that have big endowments and wealthy student bodies. On the other hand, Forbes claims to rank colleges from the student’s perspective. This leads to a bias towards schools where students’ values cohere closely with those of the college. While this is not a bad thing, neither is ideological diversity. Just because students see faults in their college or have disagreements with the administration doesn’t mean that they are receiving a poor education.
Career earnings are often factored into college earnings, as is selectivity. However, career success is determined by a multitude of factors, like work ethic, innate talent and, of course, area of business. Plus, students who already have these skills are more likely to get into more selective schools. Engineering degrees lead to the highest average mid-career salary, so it’s no surprise that MIT makes both the Forbes and U.S. News top 10 colleges. Confounding factors plague many of the other criteria categories.
The Title “Best School in the US” Is too Broad
Forbes ranked West Point as the best college in the US in 2009, but if you want to study poetry, the U.S. Military Academy might not be the best place for you. If you must look at rankings, start with rankings that are organized around major: best zoology programs, best mathematics programs, best business programs, etc. Some schools do have better programs in certain areas than others, and it’s useful to know the schools that are considered best for your subject of interest. But the rank shouldn’t be the only thing you consider when you start to apply.
Many Colleges Don’t Participate
More and more schools, particularly small liberal arts colleges, are refusing to return the questionnaires sent out by U.S. News. Not only do these schools feel that the rankings misrepresent them, they are also protesting the use of college ranking to determine where students apply. The list includes Barnard, Sarah Lawrence, Gettysburg College and Kenyon College. This means that the rankings do not have sufficient data about some of the most special and unique colleges in the country.
Consider what You Want
When it comes to looking for colleges, don’t start with a number. Instead consider subject, location, size and cost. Colleges have personalities, and you should pick the one that suits you. “I’ve always advised against the use of rankings,” writes college councilor Patrick O’Connor. “Simply because the data used in these rankings doesn’t help college-bound families answer the question “Is this the school for my child?” The answer to this question depends on a host of factors centering on the student’s academic interests, their academic preparation, their socio-emotional needs, and their economic interests.”