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How Reliable Are College Rankings?


In a September 5, 2012 editorial, USA Today admonished colleges that have misrepresented themselves to improve their rankings.  (See “Colleges Fail Students When They Game the Rankings“.)  Although several colleges have been guilty of this over the years, the most recent one was Emory University, which in August admitted it had altered the data it reported to the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. News and World Report.  For more than ten years, the university had inflated its students’ average ACT and SAT scores, as well as their high school class ranks.  Unfortunately, with the amount of attention paid to rankings, particularly those published by U.S. News, this probably won’t be the last time we hear of a college changing its numbers.
Stories like this beg the question, “Just how reliable are the rankings, and how much should I use them in my college search?”  When looking at rankings, it’s important to know what data went into them and to understand the methodology that was used to generate them.  For example, U.S. News collects data on colleges’ selectivity, financial resources, faculty resources (including class size and the percent of faculty with the highest degree in their fields), freshmen retention rates, and graduation rates.  All of these are factors that arguably indicate the quality of a college’s academics.
Yet, U.S. News’s rankings also are based on what the magazine calls peer assessments — ratings of colleges by presidents, provosts, and deans of admission at “peer institutions”.  In other words, the president of one college is asked to judge the academic excellence of similar colleges.  Additionally, the magazine asks high school counselors to rate colleges.  These two factors are combined for a measure that U.S. News calls undergraduate academic reputation, which accounts for 22.5 to 25 percent of a college’s overall ranking.
It seems to me that there is an inherent problem when college administrators are asked to assess other colleges.  Wouldn’t it be in an administrator’s best interest to rate a peer institution less favorably in order to boost the rankings of his or her own college?
While rankings can be a valuable source of information, they should always be taken with a grain of salt and should be one of many sources of information students use in deciding where to apply and eventually, where to enroll.  When examining rankings, ask yourself, “Are the factors that went into these rankings a good indication of what my experience will be like at this college?”  While U.S. News and World Report collects data that’s helpful in determining what one’s academic experience might be like at a particular college, keep in mind that there is much more to college than academics.  Above all, remember that just because a college is ranked number one on a certain list, that doesn’t mean it’s the number one college for you.


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