College Pete

BIG Drop in US News College Rankings – What’s It Mean for You? (HINT: Not much)

BIG Drop in US News College Rankings – What’s It Mean for You?  (HINT: Not much)

The annual US News & World Report college rankings were released yesterday, and the media (both social and traditional) were abuzz with folks either a) touting their schools or b) ‘splaining away their precipitous falls from ‘grace.’

Columbia University – you know, the Ivy one – had a lot to say after dropping 16 slots, from number 2 in the country last year to number 18 this year. Cue the hand-wringing!

Now before I share how I really feel about the ubiquitous, yet entirely uninformative rankings ( spoiler alert – I’m completely indifferent), let’s examine the facts.

This year US News reported yet another change to their ranking methodology, particularly with respect to how much weight was given to SAT/ACT scores. In short, standardized test scores count  a lot less than they used to.

In addition to the reported test scores of incoming freshmen, there were tweaks to other areas of the formula, which considers about 15 other ‘academic quality’ measures of the Freshman class (class rank, gpa etc.), the anecdotal opinions of other so-called higher ed officials, and a teeny tiny set of outcomes criteria (e.g., alumni giving, Pell Grant recipient grad rates, etc.).

Note that the bulk of the rankings criteria consists of measuring the high school performance of the previous year’s matriculating class. Almost none of what is utilized to determine a school’s ranking truly captures the type of education a student actually receives at a particular institution. Think about that.

The statistical measures that make up the rankings methodology offer little insight into whether a school is “good”, or more importantly, a “good-fit” for your child.

The broad-stroke rankings that so many put so much stock in mostly measure the high school achievement of its matriculating freshmen. Is that really the best way to determine whether a college is ‘good’?

I would counsel no… that perhaps there’s a better way to analyze the value of a school. In my practice, and in those of many of my colleagues including many school counselors, we caution families against relying solely on any ranking when defining the value of a school. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to evaluate a school based on the progress that students make from August of freshman year to May of senior year? Or to identify and rate student achievement six months to six years post graduation? Or to quantify the commitment to teaching and career development among the faculty and administration? Wouldn’t that better reveal the educational merit of a particular school?

Yet measuring that progress, or that commitment, with data is extraordinarily difficult, so it’s not included in the US News or most other broad-brush rankings. There are faculty measures in the methodology including class size (important!) at 8%, faculty compensation (debatable) and percentage of faculty with terminal degree in field (i.e. Ph.D.)  – yet nothing about faculty commitment or influence in the real world. What good is it for my undergrad child if she never meets personally her Ph.D. professor who has written 19 books because he’s too busy conducting research with graduate students?

Back when I was in college, my school (Tufts) wasn’t ranked, because the school refused to share data with US News. Many other colleges, mostly of the small, liberal arts variety, also withheld information as an act of defiance against the ‘flawed’ methodology. As a young college student I was slightly bothered  because I wanted to know (and maybe brag about) how Tufts compared with others.

Ironically, today, Tufts is ranked at 32- tied with UC Santa Barbara and a notch below UF, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest (all at 29) . These universities couldn’t be more different in terms of class size, curriculum, social scene, cost of attendance…yet their ranking is quite similar. Do I know any more about how Tufts compares with its peers because of the US News rankings? Or whether Tufts would be the right school for me today, or for any other applicant, based on a single number (it’s rank)? Very little, I’m afraid.

So what good are the US News rankings?

As a whole, the rankings offer a single place where data on schools can be collected. When researching colleges, students and families may find certain data points that they prioritize, and the rankings may provide this data. BUT to suggest that Columbia was a far better school last year when it was 2 than it is now, or that the 17th ranked school is better for your child than the 27th ranked school is nonsense.

Do yourself and more importantly your child a favor and look at factors beyond rank when considering where to apply.

When I speak in public I like to joke that the only college rankings with any real consequence are the College Football Playoff rankings. As senseless as that sounds, the CFP actually determines a real outcome, however flawed you might think it is and whatever little consequence it has on society.

When my kids were in high school, there was a sign hanging in their school’s college guidance office that read, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” There are many great colleges that are not in the top of the rankings but still offer a great education and considerable scholarship opportunities (See The US News rankings are more about a false prize.

Oftentimes, the match is harder to measure. 

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