College Rankings: A Weird Beauty Contest

As many of you know, I’m not a fan of US News and World Report’s college rankings even though I write a college blog for the magazine.  The methodology is flawed and the rankings sponsor does not try to measure what kind of education students receive at their schools. What I find even more troubling is the fact that  college rankings have encouraged colleges to behave very badly.
I’m bringing this up today because US News has just released its 2012 college rankings. Surprise, surprise. According to US News, Harvard University is the No. 1 ranked university and Williams College is the top dog among liberal arts colleges.
I thought I’d use the latest college rankings release as an opportunity to share just one of my pet peeves with US News’ college rankings. The magazine’s college rankings amount to a strange beauty contest.
Reputation plays a heavy role in deciding who will be the alpha dogs in the US News & World Report’s college rankings and who will be the mutts. That’s a major reason why the schools that enjoy a great reputation – deserved or not – monopolize the top rankings spots. Reputation had traditionally accounted for 25% of a college or university’s ranking.  How the magazine determines reputation is crazy.

How is a College Doing on a Scale of 1 to 5?

Every year, the magazine sends out three surveys to each institution in a particular category, such as national universities or liberal arts colleges. Three administrators in the office of the president, admissions and provost are supposed to fill out the surveys. The folks stuck with this chore are expected to grade each of their peers on a 1-to-5 scale. The best score is a 5 and the worst is a 1.
Any guess which schools get a heap of 5 scores?’ Beyond the automatic high scores of some schools and the crappy scores of others, what has always irked me is that universities and colleges are supposed to know what’s going on at their “peer” institutions and that’s impossible. You can’t tell me, for instance, that administrators at the University of Wisconsin can assess the academic quality of hundreds of its peers including Georgia State, University of Missouri, University of Chicago, Rutgers, MIT, San Diego State and the College of William & Mary.

Changing the College Ranking Reputation Scores

The magazine has deservedly received a lot of flack for basing so much of its ranking on these dubious reputation assessments. I suppose that’s one reason why the magazine dropped the reputation rating down slightly to 22.5% of the total score for its 2011 rankings roll-out. The magazine also shrunk the opinions of the schools themselves to 15% and it added the opinions of high school counselors (7.5%).
Frankly, I don’t think high school counselors are in any better position to measure the reputation of individual schools across the country.   Many counselors know little about the schools outside their own state. In fact, they may know little about schools beyond their own state institutions – if that.

How to Use the Rankings

It’s fine to use US News & World Report’s  college rankings as a starting point to gather names of schools to consider in your college. But please don’t assume that the No. 1 school must be better than School No. 2 or No. 50 or the school ranked as 100th best. It’s up to you to evaluate what schools are best for you or your child. Sure that’s a lot harder than taking your cues from the magazine, but a heck of a lot is at stake.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News & World Report.

Read More:

Blaming College Rankings for Runaway College Costs
What Ever Happened to Shakespeare?
4 Ways to Check Out Colleges and Universities

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  1. How’s this for dubious?:
    In the 2010 US News & WR, my alma mater, The College of Wooster, was ranked in the top 5 for “Undergraduate Teaching at Liberal Arts Colleges” along side more well-known institutions such as Swartmore, Williams and Oberlin.
    One year later, Wooster is not even in the top 15 on the same list. What, the entire faculty is different this year? The faculty’s effort, expertise, attention to students, teaching techniques had a massive and collective slide downward in one year?

  2. Amen, Lynn, but it’s a hard sell to status conscious kids and parents. A much better starting point than these dubious rankings is Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges which gives a list of colleges that are strong in particular majors. An excellent antidote to US news & World Report!