College Rankings

By Alyssa Kucera

This time of year, college rankings seem to be everywhere as high school seniors begin the college application process.  Do these rankings accurately reflect the quality of education colleges and universities offer their students?  There is reason to be skeptical.

Every fall, major publications like U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, and The Princeton Review (TPR) release their lists of college rankings.  Students and parents nationwide rely upon these lists to help their search for the perfect college. These publications use different procedures to compile their rankings.  U.S. News relies heavily on college reputation and objective survey data, such as average GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, which are self-reported by the colleges.  By contrast, Forbes’ ranking methodology attempts to measure the “quality of education” based on student and alumni evaluations of professors, student debt, four year graduation rates, and faculty and student awards.  TPR provides top-twenty lists for different categories based on student responses to questionnaires about their college experiences.  Each of these approaches has some limitations.

As a result of the differences in methodology, the rankings often vary dramatically between publications. It’s not surprising to find schools like Harvard and Yale at the top of each list, no matter the publication, but you may be surprised at some of the other top ranked universities. For example, this year Forbes’ number two-ranked school is Pomona College. When one considers that Forbes’ audience usually consists of entrepreneurs, it makes sense that their top schools all have well known business programs.

In January of this year, a U.S. News survey reported that 18.2% of UCLA students listed college rankings as ‘very important’ in influencing their final decisions.  A recent report from the Harvard Business School concluded that a one-rank improvement in the U.S. News ranking resulted in a 1% increase in college applicants.  These factors provide a motivation for schools to try to increase their rankings.

While the extent of the problem is unclear, a number of universities have admitted to or been caught falsifying their statistics involving acceptance rates, as well as average SAT/ACT scores and average GPAs. In March of 2013, NBC News reported that six top colleges in the last year have admitted to inflating test scores and falsifying admitted students’ class ranks in order to portray the school as more prestigious than they are in actuality. Admissions counselors at Emory University, George Washington University and Claremont McKenna College have come forward and resigned due to falsified information.

New approaches of evaluating colleges have been proposed in hopes of allowing students to make more informed decisions.  In August 2013, President Obama announced that the Department of Education will implement a new ratings system by the 2015 school year.  Colleges will be assessed based on performance, including accessibility, affordability and students’ post-graduation success.

While college rankings may sound like an easy way to choose your top schools, it can be risky to rely too heavily on this information.  Admissions data that is self-reported by the colleges can be unreliable due to the college’s motivation to inflate their ranking.  Subjective data provided by student surveys and evaluations is not always accurate due to biased phrasing of questions. In addition, students should remember that publications providing the rankings are in the business of selling magazines and advertising, not necessarily helping one pick the right school.

While rankings may play a role in a college search strategy, students should look beyond the numbers to determine what schools offer a good fit for them as individuals.  The ‘best’ school may not necessarily be the right school for you.