What to think of college rankings

High school students: if you haven’t already, please spend about three minutes to take a survey. Your responses are completely anonymous. The survey is open until the end of September, and then I’ll publish results. Thanks!

Last week US News and World Report released their annual college rankings. Just the fact that the list is out was news in itself, and I’ve also received a number of emails from individual colleges touting their rankings. US News isn’t the only publication that ranks universities, but it’s probably the most well known.

For those of us who follow admissions and advise students, there are two appropriate responses to the rankings. One is to do a deep dive into the data. Look at who moved up and who moved down. Look at changes in the factors that go into the rankings and how they’re calculated. Look for value and opportunities for clients (“common wisdom” is that numbers 26, 51, and 101 will be desperate for top applicants to boost their ranking into the higher tier). I don’t do any of this. I haven’t checked out the new rankings, and I never just look at the list to analyze it.

The other appropriate response is to loudly ignore rankings. Most college admissions counselors, at least publicly, will tell you that the rankings are worthless, that they’re one of the main villains ruining college, and that the world would be better off without the rankings. I don’t do this either. Honestly, I’m glad that the rankings are out there. There are several things that rankings are good for.

For one, rankings provide students and families a third-party, “objective” sense of a college’s reputation and strength. While some high school students are obsessed with knowing about all the “good” colleges, most are too busy being high school students to do a lot of research before their senior year. About a quarter of my clients, when we’re putting together a chart for comparing schools on their list, will want a column on the chart for reputation and esteem, ie rankings. I don’t chastise the clients for this. I believe that if it’s important to you to go to a school that has a good reputation and is one that “people have heard of,” then we should be honest about that and take it into account. I help people find schools that have what they want; I’m not in the business of telling people what they should and should not want.

That being said, I’m careful about how I include rankings in my charts for clients. I only include rankings if the student asks for it, and it’s always the last column to the right. I also include rankings from more than one source, to make it clear that there’s no universal agreement on how to measure the quality of colleges or how to sort them. Back before smart phones with gps and maps, people often had to ask strangers for directions. Smart travelers knew to ask several people for directions to a place and not rely on a single person’s instructions. The same rule goes for rankings.

Plus, you’ve got to start somewhere. If you’re sitting down in front of a blank search page wondering where to begin, “best liberal arts colleges in California” seems like a much more reasonable search than “where should I go to college?

Please don’t get too caught up in the rankings. They’re arbitrary, easily manipulated, and based on measurements and objectives that may not be important to you in the least. On the other hand, don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong if you do look at the lists. US News is not, in fact, ruining college.

If you’re going to check the ranking lists, keep a few things in mind:

Never rely on a single list. Look at several to cross-reference and notice patterns. Is it significant if a school is #23 on a particular list? No, not really. Is it significant if that school is in the top 25 of multiple lists? Yeah, that seems legitimate. The three ranking sites I look at most often are US News, MONEY best colleges for your money, and Niche. For more specific types of rankings, there are lots of other lists out there.

And the more specific, the better. A search for a single major or specialty within a major is good. A search for a single geographic area is good, or schools of a certain size. Looking through the rankings for important-but-intangible things like “party schools” or “happiest students” is fine, but remember that every college has parties and happy students. Searching for something vague like “best college” is really useless. Don’t bother.

The most important thing to remember is that the numbers don’t matter. Number two is not significantly better than number three, or number 20, or possibly even number 120. Being on the list counts—it tells you that a school is recognized in the larger community for being good at something. But where on the list doesn’t really matter. A school or program can move around from number 1 to 11 to 6 to 27…without anything changing. Think about the person in your high school class who is ranked three places ahead of you, and the person ranked three places behind you. Are you really a much better student than the one behind you? Are you really a much worse student than the one ahead? Nope.

(Quick, without looking: what’s the number one university in America? Maybe you didn’t guess Princeton—which is #1 on US News. Or MIT, #1 on Niche. Or UC Irvine—#1 in MONEY. But whatever you did guess is probably in the top 25. And you’re not wrong, even if it’s not technically #1.)

College rankings are not all that different from student class rankings. #1 is probably not that much better of a student than #10. I’ve made the case for ranking students the way they mark time in the Tour de France, giving riders the same time if there’s no gap in between them, and the same is true of college rankings.

One more thing: it’s ok to have fun if you’re lucky to end up at a top-ranked school. I worked at a high school that was often in the top 25 of most national rankings, and I graduated from one (a long time ago) that’s often in the top 25. When the rankings come out, I brag on social media like everyone else. It feels good. But it’s not real, and I keep that in mind. If you enroll at Princeton or MIT or Stanford, enjoy the reputation and impressed faces. But don’t believe the hype that you’re really smarter than all the others out there.

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