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Rankings: Playing on Perceived Reality

Every year, I hear a story about a student “who got in nowhere” through the grapevine. That can only happen when there was a bad college list, usually one based on rankings.

Why do I advise families to emphasize fit over college rankings? It’s because no ranking is a reliable indicator of the experience a student will have in college or after graduation.

You might be surprised to learn that 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 are the people surveyed by USNW? Like the reviewers on Yelp, the students who choose to participate are often big fans of the college who want to boost its rankings. That means that the students who chose to enroll in the first place create the data, not a fair sampling.

Let’s look at the US News and Forbes charts. College presidents, deans, provosts, and a small sampling of high school counselors give the “peer reputation” on US News, which is based on “Tell us which the best colleges in the US are.”

The faculty source data is tilted towards helping wealthy schools with small class sizes. Professor quality has a real value, but often “having the highest degree in a field” is misleading. All professors may not have the highest degree in the fields they are teaching, just a Ph.D. in something.

The 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 is irrelevant for a business or history major who doesn’t set foot in those facilities.

Forbes mainly considers financial factors such as pay scale (self-reported by alumni). Rankings on “American Leaders,” and academic success are arbitrary. Concrete statistics on students who win Fulbrights and earn Ph.D’s are impressive, but impressive students are the real achievers, and they can accomplish this at many colleges.

Rankings are enticing, so it’s ok to be honest if they influence you. But basing your student’s college list on them does him/her/them a disservice; doing so implies that the institution is the source of success, not your child. It may cost you more money than you need to spend on a great education. Largely high-tuition private and many higher-cost publics (especially for out of state students) top the rankings. These colleges can generally afford to be less generous with aid, too.

The bottom line: every student needs a balanced list, including one college that admits over 50% of applicants, regardless of grades, rigor, and test scores.


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