Where Should College Rankings Rank in Choosing a College?

Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion and that efforts to get people to watch your movie or show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on the covers of magazines and included in various hot lists.

Higher education’s equivalent of that is COLLEGE RANKINGS. College and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile, meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placements on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. The rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine a school’s quality.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance who runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEOs. For example, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university ever, so I have no ethical risk in how I respond, which should give you some idea of how these things work.

A Closer Look at What Makes Up College Rankings

The U.S. News surveys are then balanced by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution – no wait, I mean the opposite of that.

For instance, one of the biggest factors in the survey is how much money each school spends and earns. “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money being a huge factor, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re selling magazines to people who expect to see the same colleges and universities at the top of the list each year.

However, I doubt anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe People magazine 100 percent knows who the hottest people are in the world?

New Tools for Measuring Colleges and Universities

Very slowly, some better tools are being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes -- what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities -- and U.S. News has been publishing some of those results as well.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: Build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Put your suggestions for what should go on that list in the comments below, and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows? Maybe we can control the college rankings of the future!

Be seeing you.

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