College Rankings

Quick note: this is a long post; if you’d rather absorb this information via video, Evelyn’s webinar based on this post is here.

Have you ever gone onto Yelp to look at a restaurant’s reviews?  Ever run into this weird situation where the same restaurant has some people who LOVE it, give it 5 stars and rave about the food and the service….and yet that same restaurant has some angry, critical 1-star reviews as well?  Why does that happen?  It’s because people have different needs, tastes, and opinions about what makes a good restaurant.

The same is true for the college experience.  A big, sporty, spirited school with 350-person lectures and a general education core curriculum might be perfect for one student – and a nightmare for another who needs a different learning environment to succeed.

So you can view college rankings like Yelp – they are accurate in some ways, for some people, but the information they provide may not apply to you, or your child.

In fact, to really put college rankings into context, you should really know the methodology used to create them.  At US News and World Report, the dominant annual college ranking entity, the rankings take into account a number of factors, some of which might surprise you.  For example, for some strange reason, US News decided that asking college presidents and administrators to rank themselves and their competitors (to which they refer, in a genteel way, as “peer institutions”), would be a good first building block for their ranking methodology.  So US News sends college presidents and provosts a survey each year, called the “academic peer assessment survey,” asking these (biased?) administrators about their impressions of their “peer institutions.”  US News also sends questionnaires to 2,200 high school counselors – and of this group, only about 7 percent respond (have you ever seen a high school counselor with time to spare?).

Think of it this way:  If there were a rankings process in the fast food industry, and US News sent the CEOs of Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, White Castle, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s a questionnaire asking them whose burger they thought was best, what do you think each of them would say?  And if you’re a fan of small, one-bite burgers with chopped onions under a steamed mini-bun, would it matter to you if Burger King’s flame-broiled burger came out #1?

So that reputation piece?  The opinion that college administrators and those 154 high school counselors have about what the list should look like?  That accounts for almost a quarter of the methodology.  It’s 22.5% of the weight inside that rank.  The opinions of college administrators account for 15% of the rankings (this group has a 40% response rate), and the information from high school counselors accounts for 7.5% of the rankings (this is the group with the aforementioned 7% response rate – that means there are 154 high school counselors across the whole country whose opinions count towards this nationally-revered ranked college list).

What??!  How did I not know this?

Well, US News publishes this information, but they really don’t want you to dig into this “fine print.”

What else is in these college rankings?

12.5% of the rank is made up of student selectivity.  This means that a college whose acceptance rate is 25% would look better than a college that admits 27%.  But what defines an “application?”  What if you put a school onto your Common App list but don’t actually submit it?  Does that count?  What if you send your test scores to a college but don’t actually submit the application?  What if you submit your application, but withdraw after you’re admitted somewhere else early?  Does THAT count?  Can you see how this provides colleges with already very low admit rates to encourage EVEN MORE students to apply, to bump up their application numbers, and push down their admit rate?  Have you received 46 e-mails from Duke, UChicago, Northwestern or Yale this week?  Is it possible that this is one of the reasons why a number of highly selective colleges have jumped onto a new application bandwagon (called the “Coalition App”)?  Does having multiple application platforms make it more difficult for US News to independently verify each college’s total number of applicants?

22.5% of the rank is determined by graduation and retention rates – this is a legitimate way to judge a college so I’m ok with this.  However, another 7.5% of the rank is determined by whether or not the college outperforms or underperforms the graduation rate that US News expected it to have.  This seems like a great place for some funny business to happen – and colleges are well-known for their efforts to manipulate numbers like this in their effort to climb higher in the rankings.

Twenty percent of the ranking is determined by the resources given to the faculty.  This means salaries.  And a small difference in salary – a few bucks a day – could make a difference at the top.  Another ten percent of the weighting considers the college’s average spending on research and facilities per student.  So an awesome brand-new business school building that cost $10 million will show favorably towards a college’s spending per student….but it will help you as a bio major, or an English major…, exactly?

Alumni donations also factor into this venerable calculation – they account for 5% of the rankings.  It’s not just how large the donations are, but rather, what percentage of alumni give back.  I can tell you from personal experience as “gift chair” for my class that all gifts, any size, count, and the drive for (small) dollars is 100% rankings-motivated.

There are many factors that aren’t even considered in the rankings – primary among them being the quality of the undergraduate learning experience!!  This post on the website Liberal Arts Colleges does an excellent job of reminding us how the rankings are unstable and unreliable.

Georgia Tech’s Rick Clark – no fan of the rankings, an opinion most Admissions Directors share – points out that your job as a future college student is to look past these fairly arbitrary numbers and figure out which colleges are right for YOU.  “You want colleges to understand that a test score does not define you,” he challenges.  “Similarly, I’d assert that selecting a school on a number is equally myopic.”

So now we know what the rankings include.  The question is this:  what do they NOT include – and what’s important to YOU?  Are there better ways to determine if a college is a good fit?

Yes.  Of course there are!

The Liberal Arts Colleges website offers some alternative factors that you should consider as you build your college list.  When we work with our juniors through what we call “Phase 1:  The College Search” part of our 2-part process, we break this down into a few categories:

Do you want to be close to home, or far away?  Weather is something to consider; California kids may not realize how cold upstate New York really is (p.s. Flagstaff, AZ is pretty darned cold in January too – and so is Spokane, WA!)  If you grew up in a snowy area, maybe you want a little break from that?  Do you want your campus to be a drive or a flight away?  Do you want mom to be able to drop in for lunch?

Are you looking for a big college, medium, or a small one?  Do you understand the difference, and how it will impact you academically?  Will it impact your ability to graduate with the major in which you are most interested – in four years?

What kind of academic experience fits your learning style?  What will class size be in your first two years?  Will you have access to professors?  Which colleges will allow you to explore a broad spectrum of courses that are most exciting to you?  What would be required for you to graduate from each college with your major (ie some colleges will require you to take a foreign language to graduate; some students see this as a “no way!”)?

Is the quality of the education a good fit for you?  While you might think this is difficult to measure, you can look at a few things:

  • What percentage of classes are taught by professors with a terminal degree in the field?
  • What percentage of classes are taught by professors vs. graduate students?
  • How much contact will I have with professors during my time there?
  • What percentage of students are employed in the field of their choice, or in graduate school, within 6-9 months after graduation?

What academic enrichment opportunities will the college provide?  Are you interested in researching in a lab?  Or an internship?  What percentage of students go abroad or have some other experiential learning opportunity?  What employers recruit on campus?  Where do graduates land?

What’s the student life like on campus?  Which colleges have activities that will keep you busy and engaged?  Which colleges will challenge you to grow your leadership skills, or build your athletic or artistic abilities?  Is being involved in a fraternity or sorority important to you?  Is the Greek system dominant?  Some students are not interested at all in this, so going to a school where “everyone” goes Greek might be a bad idea.

  • Time and time again, studies show that students who are engaged in activities on campus have a better college experience. This study and video explain more.  Student involvement helps both academically and with post-graduate career networking, and more importantly, can help students deal with the anxiety and emotional issues that sometimes arise with transitioning to a college environment.
  • What are the dorms like? Can you share a room with someone, or do you need your own room?  Do you want a communal bathroom or do you need your own?
  • What’s the food like? And are the dining halls in each residential building or do you have to trek across campus to eat?  Is it all-you-can-eat or a dollar-based system?  This may sound minor, but if you’re a big-appetite athlete, this can make a big difference in the cost!

You can see that most people would have different answers for each of these questions, and for most students, the answers to these different categories would have different weight, in terms of their importance.  And that’s why rankings give you SOME information, but not necessarily all the right information you need to help determine which colleges are best for YOU – before you move to “Phase 2 – College Applications” (you thought I was going to leave you hanging!).

Visiting colleges will give you the most relevant, first-hand information about how well you fit there, and how well they fit you.  But assuming you can’t spend all of your time visiting colleges (like we do!), we actually made a short video to walk you through researching a college website that takes all of these factors into account.  Determining whether or not you are a good candidate for admission is a small part of this research, but if you determine that a college isn’t a good fit for you, it really doesn’t matter if you can get in or not!

college rankings
College rankings: now that you know what’s in them….

One of our favorite ways to demonstrate that college ranking will not be a determinative factor in whether or not you succeed after college is to show them this list.  Every year, Harvard Law School publishes this list of the undergraduate institutions from which their first year law students graduated.  You’ll probably recognize about half of the schools on this list – and of the half that you do recognize, you’ll probably realize that there are a bunch of colleges that you would not consider “stellar.”  The point is this:  it matters less what the college’s ranking is, and more what you DO as a student there.  If you make the most of your undergraduate experience, you can get to Harvard Law School, no matter where you start.

So we started with a food metaphor, but here’s an even more pertinent one as we wrap up our discussion:  college rankings are kind of like a hot dog.  Now that you know what’s in it, do you still want your college process to be guided by it?  Or do you want to decide what’s most important to you, and drive your search based on your own criteria?

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