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  • Nancy Fries

Rethinking Rankings


The Johns Hopkins University earns high rankings... but it isn't right for everyone.

Two new rankings of America’s best colleges were released last week, one awarding Williams College the coveted #1 spot, and the other crowning Babson College as tops. Let me guess what you are thinking: “Babson? Where is that? WHAT is that? And what about Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale?” When someone mentions a college you’ve never heard of, what’s the first thing you do? If you Google its US News and World Report ranking, you are hardly alone.


A wonderful mom I know was unabashedly disappointed about the college her son is attending this fall. Her son, a bright student and gifted musician, is heading to a mid-size university with a healthy blend of strong academics and social activities, accessible professors, internship opportunities, and a suburban location just outside a great city. What’s not to like? Its US News ranking. She fancied her son going to a higher ranked school than this amazing institution, which is “only” in US News’ top 25. Let’s imagine for a second that the school jumps ten slots in this year’s US News ranking. She would be ecstatic, even though nothing about the school itself, nothing that truly matters, would have changed.


I’m unabashedly opposed to rankings. My own son is going to a college that refuses to submit data to US News for the rankings. Yet the magazine insists on ranking the college anyhow, resulting in what is universally considered to be an inaccurate number. Do you think I care? I’ll answer that later. The important point to keep in mind when reviewing any of these rankings is that their main purpose is to sell magazines, and their methodologies vary widely. The reason Babson popped up in the #1 spot in Money magazine’s ranking has to do with Money’s focus on return on investment. Incidentally, Babson, a specialized business school, is not even ranked by US News.


One of the huge problems with most rankings is they take a vast selection of colleges, each with its own characteristics, strengths, and advantages, and try to fit them into a neat and tidy set of criteria. It’s like the rankings you see boasting, “Best cities to raise children,” (Raleigh, N.C.) or “Best family vacation” (Atlantis in the Bahamas). What if I don’t want to live in the south or I don’t like big resorts? Similarly, for a student who wants a particular kind of learning experience, or a specialized major, or a certain geographic location, lumping colleges along a straight and narrow continuum from best to worst discounts the personal values and preferences that should weigh most heavily in college choice.


In one of the most egregious aspects of US News’ methodology, nearly one quarter of the ranking is based on a factor called “peer assessment.” In this “beauty contest” of sorts, college administrators rank other colleges, regardless of whether they’ve ever even set foot on campus. It’s kind of like you or me ranking a Lamborghini versus a Ferrari versus a Porsche, even if we’ve never driven any of them. Or me, because I drive one model of SUV, ranking all models, including those I’ve never driven. It’s preposterous, yet year after year, US News uses Peer Assessment as a key factor in its rankings.


Another huge beef I have with the rankings is that they factor selectivity, which includes the acceptance rate as well as the standardized test scores and high school class rank of enrolled freshmen. This piece of the ranking has driven colleges to market themselves more and more vigorously to potential applicants to increase their applicant pool and, hence, selectivity. Unsuspecting high school seniors with strong standardized test scores receive letters and emails that all but say, “You’re in.” I’ve had people tell me their child is being “recruited” by, say, University of Chicago (one of the worst offenders) or even the Ivies. This is one of the key contributors to the college admissions frenzy that has students applying to 15, 20, or even more colleges, and it's a vicious cycle. Colleges woo more applicants, which reduces their acceptance rates, boosts their rankings, and drives students to apply to more and more colleges because the odds are so strongly against them.


Incidentally, US News doesn’t factor into the rankings some key features that might be more than a little bit important to you—such as student satisfaction and quality of education. Happy students and accessible professors don’t count in the rankings. But the number of volumes in the library counts. (Do we care anymore?) Even the late, former Dean of Admissions at Yale takes issue with the rankings: “There are many excellent reasons to apply to Yale,” he wrote on Yale’s website, “but Yale’s position in the rankings is not one of them.” He doesn’t mean because Yale was ranked #3 last year behind Princeton and Harvard! His reason is, “the more or less arbitrary factors that go into ranking calculations often have little to do with what will be important to your educational experience.”


So to the question: Do I care about the US News ranking of my son’s college? The former education editor of The New York Times called it “the most intellectual college in the country.” Princeton Review just ranked its professors #1 and its classroom experience #3. Objectively, it ranks fourth in the nation for sending its graduates on to earn doctoral degrees and has produced the second-highest number of Rhodes scholars for a liberal arts college. Most importantly, it offers the curriculum, campus culture, size, and location my own unique child desires. I shouldn’t care about US News, should I? I wish I didn’t, but I do. Why? Because you do, too. And I’ll admit to caring what people think. But I don’t care enough to wish my son were going elsewhere; I only wish there were no rankings to cast a stigma on wonderful colleges that don’t fit perfectly into US News’ boxes. Most of all, I wish more students (and their parents) would feel free to choose the college that is the best fit for them, regardless of ranking.

Suggested Resources

If you want to look beyond the rankings to learn more about colleges, I highly recommend Princeton Review’s The Best 379 Colleges and Fiske Guide to Colleges. Both offer reasonably objective perspectives on a wide range of colleges and universities (although calling any collection of 379 colleges “the best” troubles me). I’m also a big fan of Colleges that Change Lives.

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