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Rankings...Only Perceived Reality

Every year, I hear a story about a student “who got in nowhere.” Sometimes, it’s just untrue. When it actually does happen, there was a bad college list, usually one based on rankings.

The truth? No ranking is a reliable indicator of the experience a student will have in college or after graduation.

College rankings are simply designed for marketing and profit of the third parties that publish them, not students or colleges. Using a mostly twisted “objective” methodology, the information runs from true, skewed, or blatantly false.

What’s true? The dry data provided by IPEDS ( IPEDS is usually a year behind and colleges must provide the numbers to the government in order to receive federal aid. What’s mostly reliable? The Common Data Set, but it too is a collaboration among Common App, Peterson's, and USNW. This last source is particularly skewed.

Who participates in the USNW rankings? It’s students who love their colleges and want to boost their rankings. College presidents, deans, provosts, and a small sampling of high school counselors give the “peer reputation” on US News and Forbes charts, which is based on the arbitrary question: “Tell us which are the best US colleges.”

The faculty source data is tilted towards wealthy schools with small class sizes. Professor quality has real value, but often “having the highest degree in a field” is misleading. Some may have a Ph.D., but aren’t teaching a course in that field.

“Financial resources per student” is generally based on the one or two institutional priorities where money was recently spent, such as a science building or a gym. While that may be a boon for a biology major who works out, it has little value for a business or history major who doesn’t set foot in those facilities.

With regard to financial factors, Forbes considers pay scale (self-reported by alumni). Statistics on Fulbright winners and those earning Ph.D’s are impressive, but impressive students can accomplish this at many colleges. The private colleges and elite public colleges that top the rankings have the highest tuition (especially for out of state students) and are the least generous with non-need based aid, too.

While rankings are enticing, basing a college list on them implies that the institution is the source of success, not the student. That sends our students the worst possible message.


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