Don't Overrate Rankings When School Shopping

When researching or visiting universities, there are hundreds of different ways to evaluate the university, and finding the best fit can be difficult. This article will evaluate rankings and their large effect on students' impressions of a university.

By Xavier Royer — January 11, 2023


Don't Overrate Rankings When School Shopping

This is the first of two articles written for those in the college selection or application process. When researching or visiting universities, there are hundreds of different ways to evaluate the university, and finding the best fit can be difficult. This article will aim for rankings and their outsized effect on students' impressions of a university. This will follow an article about some of the overshadowed features of a university that prospective students either need to think more about or, at some point, are implored to ignore. Readers should keep in mind that the student, no one else, is committing approximately four years of their life and tuition.



Breaking It Down

So, what are rankings, and why do they drive this author crazy? USA News and World Report's (US N&WR) college rankings are the de facto source for university rankings, and many institutions do their best to climb the charts. They are one of many sources for rankings, as other outlets attempt to do a similar job or find niche ranking-pecific programs. However, if Universities had an NCAA sports "Top 25" system, USA N&WR would be the source of those rankings.

At the time of writing, Princeton holds the top spot, followed by MIT and a three-way tie for third among Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Some of what goes into the ranking system include income after graduation and graduation rate. Many other criteria are problematic as they do not reflect the student experience. For example, selectivity and four-year degree completion lead to higher rankings.

Why do we reward institutions for admitting fewer students? There are many reasons a student may need more than four years to complete their degree, so why reward institutions for reinforcing this completely arbitrary completion deadline? Not considered in rankings: cost. While an Ivy League degree would undoubtedly be helpful for any career, most would not be able to afford it without serious financial assistance.

Reputation

One dagger in the US N&WR ranking system is its weight on reputation; nearly a fifth of a school's score comes from this subjective "reputation" measure. For a more robust takedown of the ranking system itself, I suggest this New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell. It features an excellent anecdote in which lawyers ranked ten law schools on their reputation. In the middle of the pack was Penn State. The only problem? Penn state does not have a law school. "Reputation" is a terrible measurement; rather than presenting any new or helpful information, it reinforces existing impressions. Do students need US N&WR to tell them that those top five universities are outstanding? Part of my vendetta against rankings is that the data it uses seems like it could be more useful to prospective students. In my opinion, students would be better served by a system that focuses on accessibility, diversity, and other markers of the student experience rather than data points that feel arbitrary when scrutinized.

Every time I hear a high school senior talk about the university they will be attending and their "highly ranked program," I have to restrain from audibly groaning. There are many other reasons to choose a university than the frankensteined amalgamation of factors US N&WR uses. Even if a student gets into a highly-ranked university among other lower-ranked universities, they are doing a huge disservice by not visiting all the universities they receive acceptance from or are considering. There is something to be said about the "feel" of a university, which is impossible to express as a number and can also make or ruin a university experience.

Rankings can be a decent tool if used correctly. Mostly, it is a snapshot of how the world interprets the university. This should have a role in a student's college decision. However, rankings alone should not be the deciding factor for students if another university is better suited. What other factors should go into this decision? Check out my next article, "Don't Underrate These Criteria when School Shopping."

Xavier Royer

Xavier Royer

I am currently a full time instructor at a William Penn University, a small private university in Iowa. I am the lone political science faculty member there. In my time teaching, I have already connected with an incredible cohort of students in ways I could never have expected. Partnering with SAGE will allow me the opportunity to help even more students across the globe navigate those tricky questions.
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