College Rankings: Playing With Better Numbers

Perhaps the biggest problem with college rankings is that millions of people believe them.

When U.S. News & World Reports declares that Notre Dame is the nation’s 19th best university, rarely will anybody dispute that number. When the magazine ranks the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia as 9th and 23rd among the nation’s universities, what parent or teenager is going to care about the methodology?

Frankly, many teenagers and their parents are more focused on getting into the schools with the highest rankings and that’s sad because the magazine doesn’t try to evaluate the kind of education that students ultimately receive. Instead the magazine focuses heavily on a school’s general reputation and how many kids a school rejects every year.

The Center for College Affordibility & Productivity, which is a educational think tank in Washington, D.C., rightly concluded that the magazine’s rankings are roughly equivalent to evaluating a chef based on the ingredients he or she uses. The center has attempted to right this wrong by creating its own rankings that delve into determining what kind of learning is taking place on college campuses.

For teaching quality, the center’s measures include looking at the millions of professor evaluations on, It looks at graduation rates, and the number of students who win awards such as Fulbright travel grants and Rhodes Scholarships. It also looks at Who’s Who to get some measure of vocational success. The center admits the methodology isn’t perfect, but it certainly is superior to the magazine’s.

While some of the usual candidates for the highest rankings — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Swarthmore, Williams and Amherst– rise to the top with either ranking methodology, there are lots of surprises in the reconstituted lists of the best universities and liberal arts colleges.

For instance, Knox College in Illinois and Hillsdale College in Michigan, are ranked 80th and 97th by USNWR, but they rise to 16th and 36th in the center’s rankings. Southern Methodist University and the University of Missouri are ranked 67th and 91st by USNWR, but the alternative methodology ranks them 13th and 53rd. Samford University (118 USNWR) soars to the 27th place.

There are also plenty of losers. University of Southern Calfornia is ranked 27th by USNWR, but the center pushed it down to 56th. The center demoted Colgate University (17th) and Claremont McKenna College (11th) to 51st and 61st place.

You can look at all the rankings here.

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  1. Looks like the CCAP rankings are less friendly to public schools, and while USC is the exception, there seems to be a SNOB factor in general, ie Whos Who, who cares?