College Admissions

The College Rankings Game

Another end of summer, another US News & World Report Best Colleges list. While college administrators may publicly dismiss rankings as beneath them, when the rankings are favorable, you’ll find them featured prominently on a school’s website.

Admissions deans are under constant pressure to improve their rankings. The fact that the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, fell from 4th to 7th place in the 2007 US News & World Report rankings, is probably being anxiously discussed at the school. Alumni may be disappointed in the rating slip, but the quality of education doesn’t change dramatically in one year.

Even if you accept the idea of ranking colleges, can you trust the data used to make those decisions? The class profiles submitted by schools may not give the full picture. I have heard of colleges leaving out the SAT scores of certain groups, including legacies, recruited athletes, and development admits whose families are big donors, because the grades and test scores of these students would lower the class average and make the school look less selective. Admissions officers may count applications that were never completed so it looks like they have more students applying and therefore they appear more selective in the ratings. Also, a big part of the US News score is based on college administrators rating other schools that they may not even know.

How do you compare schools that have different programs and cultures anyway? It’s like including romantic comedies and dramas in the same best movies list. According to The American Film Institute, Citizen Kane is #1 on the list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, but while I admire the film, I prefer watching The Godfather (#3), Annie Hall (#31) and Dr. Zhivago (#39). Different people love different films, and my number 1 might be your number 18. The enjoyment I get from the experience of watching my favorite movie has nothing to do with its ranking.

The same holds true for colleges. What matters is the experience a student will have at that school. Spending four happy, productive and successful years at a college that is number 43 on the US News list makes that college number 1 for that student.

Other magazines are getting into the rankings game. Newsweek has rated the top 100 global universities. Washington Monthly took a different approach. Instead of asking which college is best for you, they asked which college is best for America. Their criteria included how colleges facilitate social mobility by reaching out to low-income students, whether they foster scientific and humanistic research, and how much they promote the ethic of service. Princeton, which is first on the US News list, is 43rd here. Among national universities, UC Berkeley is 2nd and UCLA is 4th while two women’s schools, Bryn Mawr and Wellesley, top the list of liberal arts colleges.

But none of the rankings assess the quality of teaching, because that is tough to measure quantitatively. Rankings don’t tell us how prepared a school’s students are for graduate school or the job market, or whether there’s a sense of community that makes a campus welcoming and fun.

So I suggest trusting your own observations. Sit in on a class and see if students are engaged in discussion or sleeping through a boring lecture. Great teachers who are excited about working with undergraduates can transform a student’s life. When I visited Davidson College and heard students in a residence hall passionately discussing their science class, that told me all I needed to know about academic life at the school.

Perhaps rankings make us feel more secure. If someone pronounces a school, restaurant or movie the best, we can reassure ourselves that we’ve made a good choice, but my hope is that students can trust themselves enough to find their own best schools.