College Admissions

What You Need to Know About College Rankings

The annual U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” list was published in August, and while college administrators may publicly downplay the rankings, most pay close attention to them. Not because they think the rankings have any validity, but because so many students and parents believe they do. When the rankings are favorable, you’ll find them featured prominently on a school’s website. In addition to attracting prospective students, high rankings make for happy alumni, and happy alumni are more likely to donate to their alma mater.

Getting into a highly ranked school may provide an ego boost for the student and bragging rights for parents, but attending a prestigious college is not what determines future success. If a college is only taking top students, how much of the students’ success can be attributed to the school? These high-achieving students have already demonstrated the drive and intelligence required to get into these schools, and they would be successful wherever they go to college. Rankings tell us nothing about how a college helps a student realize her potential. Would we say the best hospital is the one that only accepts the healthiest patients who are likely to have the best outcome, or the one that takes the most difficult cases and sometimes is unable to save a patient?

Even if you accept the idea of ranking colleges, can you trust the data used to make those decisions? Selectivity is one of the factors used to determine rankings, and some schools may count applications that were never completed, so it looks like they have more students applying, and therefore they appear to be more selective. There is also an incentive for colleges to solicit applications from students who will never be admitted, just to increase their selectivity.

Given the popularity of the U.S. News rankings, it should be no surprise that other organizations have created their own lists of best colleges. In 2007, Washington Monthly published its third list of colleges that are benefiting the country. The magazine looked at how well schools did in fostering research, national service and social mobility. These criteria resulted in a very different group of top-ranked schools. Public universities that enroll more low-income students did well here, with Texas A & M University and several University of California campuses topping the national universities list, while Harvard was ranked 27.

Kiplinger’s “100 Best Values in Public Colleges” attempts to identify schools that are both academically strong and affordable. Kiplinger’s used freshman SAT/ACT scores, admission rates, freshman retention rates, student-faculty ratios, and four and six year graduation rates to assess educational quality. Again, I think some of these criteria, like test scores and admission rates, are not an indication of a school’s educational excellence. But retention and graduation rates may offer some insight into how well the colleges are engaging students. Kiplinger’s looked at the cost of attendance for students with and without financial need, as well as the average debt accumulated by graduation, and combined the academic and cost assessments to determine value. SUNY Geneseo, SUNY Binghamton and University of Florida took the top spots for best values in public colleges for out of state students. High quality and low costs put University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Florida and University of Virginia at the top of the list for in state students. Relatively high in state costs put the College of New Jersey in 23rd place for in state students. Even though out of state students pay higher tuition, the cost is lower than what they would pay as out of state students at other public schools of similar quality, so the school is ranked 5th in value for out of state students.

Most recently, Forbes magazine has come out with “America’s Best Colleges,” which attempts to rank schools based on the quality of education and how much students achieve after graduation. I give Forbes credit for making an effort to use student feedback, though I’m not sure that giving student evaluations from a weight of 25 percent of the score provides a reliable assessment of a school’s educational quality. Another 25 percent of the score comes from the rate of alumni listed in Who’s Who in America. The remaining 50 percent of the score is based on average debt at graduation for those who borrowed to attend the college, percentage of students graduating in four years, and rates of students and faculty who have won nationally competitive awards.

What I found interesting is how well smaller colleges did in the Forbes rankings. It makes sense that having professors who offer personal attention increases student satisfaction, so among the top 10 schools, small colleges like Williams, Swathmore, and Amherst came in ahead of Yale or Columbia. But who would expect Centre College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky, or Wabash College in Indiana, to be ranked higher than MIT, Stanford or Brown? The median undergraduate enrollment in the Forbes top 50 schools is 2,285 students, and the only school in the top 50 that has more than 10,000 undergraduates is University of Virginia.

The different rankings reflect the values of the organizations that produce them. What matters to you may not be the same as what U.S. News, Washington Monthly, Kiplinger’s or Forbes deem significant in evaluating colleges. But none of the rankings truly reflect the quality of teaching, because that is tough to measure quantitatively. It’s important to look critically at all of these rankings. They sell magazines and can be fun to read, but the bottom line is that there is no “best” college. There are best colleges for each student, and those are the schools that should be at the top of your list.