College ranking system hurts speciality schools

As the college application season commences, various organizations will release rankings of the nation’s top colleges. One of the most prominent and influential is the annual ranking released by U.S. News and World Report.

On Sept. 9, the media company released the 2016 edition of its annual college rankings. A total of 1,376 of the nation’s 2,968 four-year colleges and universities were ranked. Princeton, Harvard and Yale universities topped the list of national universities, while Williams and Amherst colleges topped the list of liberal arts schools. 

Columbia was one of 151 colleges evaluated in the Regional Universities Midwest ranking category. Creighton, Butler and Drake universities topped the list. Robert Morris University tied for #104, while Roosevelt University ranked #112. Colleges that do not rank in the top three-fourths of their category are listed as “Rank Not Published,” according to the report’s website. Columbia’s rank was not published. 

A number of factors contributed to rankings, including graduation rates, alumni giving and cost of attendance, according to the U.S. News and World Report website. Other factors, such as average SAT/ACT scores and class rank, reveal the type of student a college admits. U.S. News and World Report’s website claims that rankings are useful when choosing a college because “they rate the strength of the academic program.” The ranking methodology  is heavily focused on the type of student a college admits, but does little to reveal the quality of the education a student will receive, especially at a specialty college like Columbia.

Colleges that offer most of their degrees in fine and performing arts, such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, are typically listed as “unranked.” The reason is it would be unfair to compare the schools to large research universities, according to the U.S. News and World Report. 

The rankings oversimplify the comparison of colleges. Universities of all sizes and strengths are pitted against each other. A school’s ranking—one single number—allows prospective students and parents to compare colleges that likely have little in common. The rankings only reinforce the myth that a valuable education can only be obtained at a competitive big-name institution. 

With national student loan debt surpassing $1.19 trillion, college applicants may turn to rankings  to be assured that they are making a wise investment when selecting a college. Rather than obsessing over a college’s rank on a highly controversial list, prospective students should utilize the abundance of websites that compare colleges rather than rank them. President Obama and the United States Department of Education launched the College Scorecard online on Sept. 12. The Scorecard compiles federal data on statistics such as graduation rate, alumni salaries and diversity without giving colleges a numerical rank.  

Similarly, the ranking website Niche provides basic admission statistics. However, colleges are also evaluated based on factors that can greatly affect the college experience such as campus food, the administration, technology, diversity and quality of campus housing. Columbia’s profile displays a B- overall grade, as well as high rankings in several categories. Each ranking is verified with a statistical breakdown of the data that produced the ranking. Niche’s rankings provide a more legitimate insight into a student’s experience, rather than relying almost entirely on admission statistics.