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They Have It All Wrong: Why College Rankings Are Misleading

“This school is ranked higher than that one, so I’ll apply to the better school.” In my line of work, it’s not uncommon to hear statements like this.

For decades, college rankings lists have promised to lead students and their families toward the perfect educational experience. And let’s be honest: choosing where to apply to college is no walk in the park. Where do you start? How do you distinguish one college from another? With thousands of colleges and universities to choose from, the pressure is palpable as teens become keenly aware that they’re choosing a path that will impact the rest of their lives.

It makes sense that college rankings are so popular. They claim to help families wade through the myriad of options by giving them insight into the quality of higher education institutions. They’re a roadmap, a comparison chart of sorts, a compass for educational excellence.

Or are they? Do they conceal more than they reveal? The reality is that very few students and their parents truly understand what is—and more importantly what is not—measured by these rankings lists.

Let’s jump into what’s really behind them.

What They Measure

College ranking algorithms measure a variety of constructs that, yes, can be useful to evaluate. It is important to gauge things like alumni giving, graduation rates, and financial resources, which all point toward the health of an institution.

One metric looks at what peer institutions think of a school, and this is a particularly troubling construct given that it’s so highly subjective and arbitrary. This “reputation” metric, called Expert Opinion, amounts to nothing more than a popularity contest—a dangerous one. How can an administrator at one institution know and appropriately judge the nuances of another?

What They Don’t Measure

But rankings grossly miss the mark when it comes to some of the most crucial aspects of a valuable college experience. They don’t typically look at the presence of experiential learning opportunities like co-ops or robust internship programs that give students real-world, hands-on experience. They don’t measure access to mentors, something that we know significantly impacts students’ development and long-term success.

And they most certainly don’t measure graduates’ development of the type of skills that, frankly, they should have by the end of their college experience. They don’t measure whether or not a student can think critically, lead, analyze, manage, problem solve, or collaborate—all quintessentially valuable components of a higher education learning experience.

Misrepresentation of Data

Rankings data can be and have been manipulated by colleges to force an artificial rise up the dubious lists. In one instance, a college infamously lied for years about its average SAT scores in order to trigger an ascent and another college bribed incoming students with a credit to its bookstore if they retook the SAT for higher scores (and then doubled down by offering $1000 in student aid if it increased by more than 50 points).

Still another put an extraordinary, obsessive amount of effort to decode the algorithm, and subsequently focused very strategically on making specific changes that resulted in its unprecedented 64-spot move over the span of a decade.

What You Can Do

Do your homework. No, I’m not talking about working through chemical equations, finding derivatives, or reading up on the Dust Bowl. I’m talking about college research—important homework indeed, since you’re trying to determine where to spend the next several years of your life! During your research, don’t focus only on the narrow list of schools that sound familiar or exclusively on colleges that bear a certain ranking—and certainly don’t rule out a school based solely on its ranking. Sure, you can use one of these lists for ideas, but I encourage you to dive much deeper into your research. Focus on the opportunities and experiences that you are looking for. Do you want easy access to professors? Maybe a co-op program that will allow you to get hands-on experience and networking opportunities? Or maybe you want a sports-going culture characterized by unparalleled school spirit. Determining your college list based on your learning and experiential preferences will undoubtedly serve you well in the long run.

And remember: A school ranked 81st won’t necessarily offer a better learning experience than one ranked 68th.


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