Fall is on the horizon and that can only mean one thing: it is college ranking season. As a school counselor, I have not been shy about my disdain for commercial college rankings.
I have called on US News & World Report to stop publishing their flawed indices due to the harmful impact they have on both student well-being and educational policy.
I have encouraged families to seek a second opinion, and I have highlighted research from Challenge Success about prioritizing engagement over rankings.
I have good company in this crusade–from the Chronicle of Higher Education to Business Insider, countless media outlets have covered the dysfunction. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently described rankings as a “joke” and said in a press release that “For far too long, our higher education system has left our nation’s most accessible, inclusive colleges without adequate resources to support student success, while many institutions chase rankings that reward privilege and selectivity over equity and upward mobility,”
For more on these issues, I highly recommend author Malcolm Gladwell’s scathing two-part Revisionist History podcast about the inequities of the US News and World Report’s rankings.
For a more sarcastic take, you might enjoy this recent piece, “How to WIN College Admission” from Rick Clark, assistant vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech. He writes, “Rankings are the gospel truth. Follow them blindly as you do all other things you read online. Don’t question their methodology or buy the false narrative purporting that they are really only about clicks and marketing dollars. Think about it- if a school went up five spots or dropped three this year, it is because they are fundamentally different places than they were last year. Draw hard lines. This is war.”
While I will continue to beat this anti-rankings drum, and challenge the “admission industrial complex” that profits from the perpetuation of these detrimental metrics, I am also not naive. It would be pollyannaish to disregard our innate desire to quantify.
I would be foolish to deny the existence of society’s brand obsession. What I take issue with is the passive way that “consumers”–applicants and their supporters–default to broad assumptions and reductive paradigms for what will serve their needs, wants, and goals.
In a Grown & Flown Facebook poll of parents last fall, 56% of respondents said they did not use rankings at all in their college search (an additional 5% said they didn’t think that rankings had any value in creating a college list).
Meanwhile, 32% of parents said they considered rankings as just one among many factors. None of the respondents admitted to rankings being an “important factor.” While these results are encouraging, one must wonder if this self-selecting group is representative of the greater culture around college admission?
How, if at all, would the responses have differed if the word “selectivity” replaced “ranking” in the poll. After all, in some formulas, the two concepts are nearly synonymous.
The truth is that choosing a college can be a weighty decision and one that requires time, research, reflection and perspective.
Higher education is an investment. As someone who just experienced the college search as a parent— and who has also spent way too long on Consumer Reports just to buy a vacuum—I get it.
We want the best and are desperate for a framework for determining quality. College, however, is much more nuanced than household appliances and quality is highly idiosyncratic.
Conceding that rankings are here to stay, I have five tips on how to approach them responsibly and with intention (feel free to rank these five as you see fit):
Every smart investor knows the importance of a diverse stock portfolio in minimizing the potential for financial failure.
I urge you to think like a broker and not put stock in only one source. Instead, broaden the landscape of the rankings you consider.
The publications that try to sell you on generic lists of top schools are just that, generic. I recommend you dial down on what matters to you.
Two intriguing tools I am following right now are Degree Choices and Less High School Stress.
I have long decried the lack of more granular, program level data, and apparently I’m not alone. Degree Choices’ founders criticize traditional rankings for their subjectivity and for “not providing prospective students and parents with useful, actionable guidance as to which colleges and programs provide economic value and which do not.”
Instead they base their rankings on data from the U.S Department of Education’s College Scorecard and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Degree Choices also incorporate payback data developed by an advisor from the progressive think tank Third Way (which also has great mobility ratings).
Degree Choices uses this data and a proprietary scale called “earningsplus,” that compares salary statistics from specific colleges and programs to weighted state averages.
The result is unique ratings in different categories, and you might be surprised by the colleges that rise to the top. For example, CUNY City College in New York holds the #1 spot on the Most Affordable Colleges list. The website also has a wealth of information about different career paths.
Less High School Stress is the brainchild of Steve Becker, a former high school counselor. He grew tired of watching students and families chase prestige and obsess about rank to the extent that their emotional and physical health suffered.
His lists share where the leaders and employees of well known companies and organizations earned their undergraduate degrees.
One cannot scan these lists without questioning their own assumptions about what schools are “best.” Meanwhile, his personalized rankings resource provides a unique approach that centers on “classroom experience and student satisfaction with the college.”
Ditch the Dichotomy
As a culture we are too often stuck in “either/or” thinking. We see this in divisive social issues, politics, and more.
This black and white, dichotomous thinking borders on disordered. The same holds true with rankings.
It is too easy to take these numbers at face value—a school is either #2 or #6. Rather than this fixed mindset, if you are going to use rankings, consider approaching them with a “yes, and” mentality. Yes, Columbia is the #2 university (or is it?), and it is in the center of a city, and my child wants a rural campus. Probably not a good match despite its numerical halo.
Do you want colleges evaluating your child by one number (a test score or GPA), or would you prefer that their application is reviewed holistically in a way that considers context and nuance? Remember the Golden Rule and treat the schools the way you would like to be treated.
Method or Madness?
If you are going to refer to rankings, then it is your job to understand how the creators arrived at their hierarchy.
Most rankers share their methodology (though it is often buried deep within the website) and you should carefully unpack how they are weighting different factors to arrive at their conclusions.
For example, 20% of the US News & World Report “Best Colleges” equation is based on a school’s reputation as determined by a peer survey sent to leaders of other colleges.
Because I have colleagues who have been intimately involved in this process, I have seen examples of this “assessment” and I know that 1.
Often these surveys are completed by administrative assistants who are unfamiliar with the peer schools, and 2.
College administrators lobby their peers for positive scores on the surveys by sending gifts and reaching out in other ways to sway responses.
If you cannot find the methodology for the rankings you are using, that should be a hard stop. For those that you can find, do a deep dive into their process and again ask yourself what matters?
You might find this exercise helpful as a primer for questions you can consider.
Don’t be a Sheep
No two college searches are identical. Having just experienced college admission with my son and now beginning the search with my daughter, this reality hits home.
Their disparate experiences have amplified for me just how arbitrary and useless most commercial rankings are.
Instead of following the herd, consider developing your own ranking system. You can use this table or create your own spreadsheet and populate it with the criteria and weighting formula that are best for you.
If I were to create my own ranking system, here are some of the factors I would include and where one might find the data to evaluate them:
- The College Scorecard, from the Department of Education, is a searchable database where you can get a wealth of information on colleges including (but not limited to): Acceptance Rate, Retention Rate, Average Annual Cost, Percent of Students Receiving Federal Loans, Median Total Debt after Graduation, Typical Annual Loan Payment, Median Earnings, Student Diversity (percent non-white), Socioeconomic Diversity (percent receiving Pell Grants).
- The Common Data Set (CDS) is a standardized report that colleges produce annually. You can search online to find the most current year’s CDS for each college. Though the CDS is data heavy, this tip sheet will help you begin to make sense of it all. I especially want to know about: Graduation Rate (6-year), Percentage of Class Sections with 30 or Less Students, Faculty Diversity.
- Using individual colleges’ websites and communication from their admission offices, one can often find helpful statistics. If it is not readily available, it can’t hurt to ask, and their level of transparency will also be informative. I am curious about data on: Acceptance Rate by Admission Plan (ED/EA/RD) and by demographic, Percent of Class Filled ED/EA, Percent admitted without test scores.
- One of the benefits of visiting a college in person is the ability to form your own opinion based on experience. While you can glean some of this information online, it is certainly more challenging. These are only a few of the criteria I like to evaluate when looking at a school: Facilities, Food, Town/Area, Access to Services,Transportation, Weather, Residence Halls, School Spirit, Safety, Affinity Groups, Institutional Priorities.
High Impact Practices (HIPs)
- Researcher George Kuh, at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), led important studies on the benefits of High Impact Practices (HIPs) and how they influence the quality of students’ experiences and success. Among these practices are: Service Learning, Internships, Undergraduate Research, First-Year Seminars, Capstone Courses, Global Learning (study abroad, etc.), and more.
While it can be difficult to find out information about the use and effectiveness of these practices at individual colleges, the wise consumer will dig deep and be resourceful to determine if a college is educationally “HIP”. For example, what percent of students study abroad? Do first-year students have access to research or are most opportunities reserved for upperclass students? Develop your own scale for evaluating these practices.
Parents of my generation will likely remember the wise advice of rapper Ice Cube who said “chickity-check yo’ self before you wrickity-wreck yo’ self.”
diving too far down the ranking rabbit hole, ask yourself the questions that have been raised multiple times above: “Does it really matter, and why?” If you can’t identify an answer then you are not ready for the responsible use of rankings.
Don’t wreck the college search for your child or your family by facile, surface assessments of quality, value and match.
Having supported thousands of families through the college search and application experience, I have seen how even subtle comments or references to a college’s rank can drive a wedge between students and those who support them.
Keep the lines of communication open and discuss expectations, hopes, and fears candidly. Most importantly, in our brand aware culture, we need to check our ego at the gates and support our students in finding the best experience for them.