Colleges overemphasize rankings

By Editorial Board

U.S. News and World Report released its annual college rankings list Sept. 9, resulting in a string of news organizations and commentators questioning the rankings’ credibility and usefulness.

On the same day, the New York Times entered the ratings game by releasing its own rankings, joining U.S. News and other institutions that judge colleges on factors such as graduation rates, retention and programs. However, the lists contradict one another. While some schools are ranked similarly, there are instances in which the discrepancies in ratings that a college receives are so great that the integrity of these systems is in doubt. A major problem in ranking non-cooperating institutions was exposed when St. John’s College in Maryland skyrocketed from its 123rd ranking in 2013 among U.S. liberal arts colleges to No. 56 after the college submitted information for the first time, The Washington Post reported in a Sept. 9 article.

This year, U.S. News ranked Princeton University the No. 1 university in the nation while College Factual, a college ranking site, named the University of Pennsylvania the top college.

The rankings are meaningless if one does not first scrutinize the factors used to appraise colleges. U.S. News’ report analyzes student retention, graduation rates, faculty, resources and selectivity, but does not consider location, cost, availability of financial aid or more subjective factors, such as quality of campus life and recreational activities. You would have to read the fine print on College Factual’s FAQ to learn that its system emphasizes outcomes such as student loan default rates and early and mid-career earnings of each colleges’ graduates. Unfortunately, the casual reader will just look at the top ten or 20 and not inquire what the ratings stand for.

Excessive reliance on these lists—which too often highlight the wealthiest, most elite institutions—is indicative of a culture that regards a college degree as an accessory rather than a certificate indicating the ability to think at an advanced intellectual level.

The rankings are not the most important factor influencing student choice, though; according to the 2013 annual survey “The American Freshman” by the University of California–Los Angeles, students take a college’s academic reputation into account more than anything else. Only 21 percent of students considered rank important compared to 66 percent of students who considered academic reputation on which college rankings undoubtedly have an effect.

The real danger of college rankings is that institutions are labeled the best when the relevant question is “best for whom,” as noted by the National Association for College Admission Counsel in a 2011 report. While they matter most to a highly selective group of students, they have consequences for students outside the charmed circle in terms of the quality of their education.

The lists attempt to make the decision of choosing a college easier by combining different institutions, with dissimilar strengths and weaknesses, into one comprehensive list. But in reality, all of the colleges on the list offer different educational experiences based on the professors, location and other immeasurable factors.

U.S. News’ top college, Princeton University, accepted only 7.28 percent of its 26,641 applicants for the graduating class of 2018, according to a March 27 press release from the institution. By this logic, only a small percentage of students can experience the nation’s best college.

These lists are merely helpful guides, and the merit institutions and future employers falsely place on them does a disservice to students. By overemphasizing ranking lists, other factors much more germane to student choice can be overlooked. Higher education institutions exist to serve students, and when institutions gloat over rankings, that message can become clouded. Colleges should advertise their rankings less and instead focus on the services they provide.