We ran out of milk this morning in the Ratzan house, on this the last day of the school year, so I was forced into a quick trip to Publix to grab a gallon of milk and some juice.  When the lady behind me grabbed the new Newsweek/Kaplan Summer 2011 Finding the Right College For You guide, I figured I should probably take a copy for myself.  As is typical with a trip to Publix, what should have been a $7 sale quickly grew to over 20 bucks.  The magazine alone fetched $12! 

The college rankings business is BIG business.  US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges is far and away the most significant, and most profitable, of these magazine rankings. While US News no longer publishes an actual print version, their Best Colleges edition sits on magazine racks and in books stores year ’round, selling for $23 a pop.  In fact, the Newsweek/Kaplan rankings require that schools be ranked in one of the top three leading college guides (these include Fiske, Princeton Review, and the aforementioned US News), while still claiming some originality to their method.  Go figure.

What do these rankings actually tell us?  In reality, they indicate the schools with the top students based on high school performance, but they tell us very little about the quality of the education that they actually deliver to undergrads.  US News uses “16 indicators of academic excellence”, while attributing 22.5%, or over 1/5 of the total, to “academic reputation”.  In other words, the opinions of college adminstrators (presidents, provosts, deans) carry significant weight, a fact that has generated controversy over the years and has prompted others like Forbes and Kiplinger to develop competitive methodologies, while forcing US News to reduce the weight attributed to reputation.  Criteria are based mostly on the incoming freshman class and include test scores,high school class rank, acceptance rate and yield, while also considering student-faculty ratios, graduation rates, and alumni giving.  Very little in the rankings measure the actual teaching of undergraduates (granted, a difficult subject to measure).  And here’s the kicker – institutional bond ratings are often influenced by the rankings, so that a school’s access to capital is made easier by their annual performance on admissions criteria rather than the true measure of their success, which should be teaching students!

The point here is that you should take the rankings with a grain of salt.  I’m not suggesting that you ignore them, but rather use them as a single, small indicator and not as the sole reason to choose a school.  Choose colleges that are the right fit for your student, starting with the academic program, how they will nurture the student’s intellectual growth, and how they will prepare your student for life after college.  This requires much more effort than an impulse buy at the supermarket express lane.

A good place to start is my free workshop on “Effective College Strategies for the Forgotten Middle Class” on Thursday, June 23, also in Pinecrest.  If you are the parent of a rising 11th or 12th grader, now is the time to pay close attention.  While this event is completely gratis, procrastination can be very costly.

Another great resource (this one for your rising 12th grader) is my ‘Thick Envelope’ Application and Admissions Boot Camp on Saturday, July 9 in Pinecrest.  This event is starting to fill up, but there are still some spots left.  I’ve extended my early bird, $50 discount to June 15, so if you register before then it’s only $197. I will offer insider admissions information that your school guidance counselor isn’t sharing with your student.  Click here for more information.

Best,
Peter

P.S. Pass this along to a friend, neighbor, family member or colleague who has high school children.  They’ll thank you for it!

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