In a brand-name driven society, it’s no surprise that families often turn to magazine rankings to help them find the “best” college. While college administrators may publicly dismiss rankings as meaningless, favorable rankings are often featured prominently on a school’s website.
Deans of Admission are under constant pressure to improve their rankings. A college that slips in the US News & World Report rankings may disappoint its alumni, and that can impact donations to the school. But families need to keep in mind that the quality of education doesn’t change dramatically in one year.Even if you accept the idea of ranking colleges, can you trust the data used to make those decisions? The class profiles submitted by schools may not give the full picture. Colleges can leave out the SAT scores of certain groups, including legacy students, recruited athletes, and development admits whose families are big donors, because the grades and test scores of these students would lower the class average and make the school look less selective. Schools may count applications that were never completed so it looks like they have more students applying, lowering the acceptance rate and making them appear more selective in the ratings. Also, part of the US News score is based on college administrators rating other schools that they may know little about.
How do you compare schools that have different programs and cultures anyway? It’s like including romantic comedies and dramas in the same best movies list. Different people love different films, and one person’s number one is another person’s number eighteen. The enjoyment you get from the experience of watching your favorite movie has nothing to do with its ranking.
The same holds true for colleges. What matters is the experience a student will have at that school. Spending four happy, productive and successful years at a col-lege that is number forty-eight on the US News list makes that college number one for that student.
Other magazines have gotten into the rankings game. Money magazine ranks colleges based on educational quality, affordability, and alumni success (as measured by Pay-Scale.com). On its list, Princeton ranks #1 this year, followed by Baruch College of CUNY. Forbes ranks colleges based on student satisfaction, graduation rate and alumni salaries. Its top colleges are Harvard, Stanford and Yale. Washington Monthly takes a different approach. Instead of asking which college is best for you, they ask which college is best for America. Its criteria includes how colleges facilitate social mobility by reaching out to low-income students, whether the college fosters scientific and humanistic research, and how much the ethic of service is promoted. Stanford, Harvard and MIT top Washington Monthly’s list of national universities while Berea College is #1 on its list of top liberal arts colleges.
But none of the rankings assess the quality of teaching, because that is tough to measure quantitatively. Rankings don’t tell us how prepared a school’s students are for graduate school or the job market. They also don’t say anything about the sense of community that makes a campus welcoming and campus life rewarding. Perhaps rankings make us feel more secure. If someone pronounces a school the best, we can reassure ourselves that we’ve made the right decision. But students who trust themselves enough to find their own “best schools” will end up making the most satisfying college choices.