College rankings are certainly a big deal to at least some young students and their families. When the US News & World Report released its new list of Best Colleges recently, over 40 million people read it online. Did those readers actually find out much about the quality of the schools on the list? The more you learn about how the rankings are created, the more it starts to seem like the answer is: probably not. Maybe that’s why US Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently called these college rankings “a joke.”
Law Schools Boycott U.S. News
This week’s announcement by U.S. News & World Report that they would make changes to the way they ranked law schools was forced by a boycott both the magazine by Yale, Harvard, Stanford and a raft of other top law schools in the U.S. A key criticism from administrators of these schools is that U.S. News’ measurement of student debt levels make schools that serve middle or lower class students look bad, and that the earnings statistics celebrate students that go to high paying private sector jobs, while denigrating those who choose to take lower paying public service positions.
For better or for worse, students and their families have long invested massive amounts of money in certain schools based on how they’re ranked. A recent demotion of New York’s Columbia University from number 2 on US News’ list to number 18 could, according to some experts, cost the school tens of millions of dollars. A large school like Columbia with a huge endowment can probably absorb that kind of hit. But hundreds of less prestigious colleges across the U.S. can’t afford that type of loss, and spend a lot of effort every year to keep their rankings as high as possible. How these schools game the ranking system may produce more of a smokescreen than a useful tool if you’re shopping for a quality college or university.
Who’s Giving U.S. News The Info?
U.S. News & World Report’s chief data strategist recently told CNN that his company’s college rankings are based on “hundreds of data points within categories including graduation rate, resources and reputation.” He added that the rankings now incorporate more data on “outcomes indicators.” The problem is that most of these data points are reported by the schools themselves, resulting in a system where it appears the foxes are managing the chicken coop.
Faking Admissions Numbers
Two key ranking factors that have drawn criticism are admission rates and quality of students accepted. A school with a very low admission rate would appear to be highly selective, and in a position to accept only very strong students, right? Well, not necessarily. Not when you consider that schools have regularly tried to manipulate this number by encouraging more and more students to apply, even if they don’t have the qualifications for admission. Recent streamlining of the Common Application Form, which makes it possible to apply to multiple schools at once, has only boosted the number of applications more. But applying to a vast number of schools is pointless for most students. While the very top schools like Stamford and Vanderbilt may accept only 5% of applications, according to The Atlantic, the truth is that most colleges accept a far higher percentage of students. It’s simply not necessary for most students to apply to dozens of colleges.
But it’s good for the college’s rankings. The more applications they get and turn down, the lower their acceptance rate is and the more “selective” they can claim to be.
SAT Scores And Inequality
Another hot button issue is the use of the SAT scores of students a school admits as a measure of the school’s quality. The rankings have continued to based quality ratings on this factor, even as more and more schools have announced that they will not longer look at SAT scores in their admissions process.
But the blame for all the ongoing attention to rankings may lie partly with colleges and universities themselves. For decades, American schools have been notoriously opaque about what exact value they are delivering to their students. Schools that want to be seen as academic centers to the point where they actually shun the idea that they are providing job training have made little effort to outline the benefits their graduates get for their tremendous investment in tuition.
On the other hand, students shopping for a college aren’t exactly blameless either. It’s far easier to surf the U.S. New & World Report website for an hour than it is to do in-depth research on a school. Until prospective students want to take that real work on, college rankings will remain popular.