U.S. college rankings: Influential, but effective?

College rankings

College ranking has gained prominence over the years, and colleges and universities compete to rank high on these lists so they can impress investors, students and parents. The influence these rankings have mean larger budgets and donations for the schools, leading to increased anxiety among college officials. U.S. News & World Report’s college ranking is one of the most popular lists, but others include Forbes and Princeton Review. But what weight do these rankings have? Are they really effective in determining the best schools? If not, are there better ways to rank schools?

Attending a good college is more important than ever today. With the price of college rising three times the rate of inflation over the past thirty years, and with two-thirds of graduates holding an average debt of $25,000, parents and students want to be assured that they are choosing a quality institution. U.S. News & World Report ranks 1,600 colleges and universities based on indicators of excellence such as freshman retention, graduation rates, the strength of the faculty, campus life and range of academic offerings. Other organizations believe alternative ranking systems would better reflect a variety of quality colleges.

An alternative college ranking

Since 2005, Washington Monthly has been publishing its own college ranking. In “Introduction: A Different Kind of College Ranking,” an article from September-October 2012 found on Questia.com, the publication contends that the U.S. News & World Report’s college ranking “actually rewards colleges for spending more money, raising prices, and shutting out all but the most privileged students.”

Rather, Washington Monthly prints a ranking that answers the question: What are colleges doing for the country in the areas of research in science, medicine and technology? Its alternative ranking is based on four factors: 1) mobility for low-income students, 2) research production especially at schools whose undergraduates later earn Ph.D.s, 3) commitment to service in the community, and added in 2012, 4) colleges that are both effective and inexpensive. The list also takes into account accessible, affordable, high-quality public universities.

For 2012, Washington Monthly’s ranking is:

  • National Universities: #1 University of California at San Diego, #2 Texas A&M University, #3 Stanford University.
  • Liberal Arts Colleges: #1 Bryn Mawr College, #2 Swarthmore College, #3 Berea College.

The problems with rankings

“One of the not so great features of mainstream rankings is that they include [the students'] starting graduate salary as a very important criteria, and that tends to reinforce the idea that the only purpose of the business education is to have a credential that [students] can trade in for a salary,” explained William Sullivan, co-author of Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, quoted in the Huffington Post article, “New Contender in the Game of Rankings,” by Anders Berg-Poulsen, July 18, 2013.

Forbes also has a ranking of America’s top colleges that considers a variety of factors. It says it is not interested in what gets a student into college, like the publication’s peers who focus on high school class rank and SAT scores. Rather, Forbes considers what students will get out of college including factors such as student satisfaction, post-graduate success, student debt and nationally competitive awards.

Consideration of various factors

Matthew Richardson in “A ‘democratization’ of university rankings: U-Multirank,” in Research Trends, September 2011, points out: “While [college] ranking scores do capture an important aspect of each university’s overall quality, they don’t speak to a diverse range of other issues, such as student satisfaction within these institutions.” He says that in an effort to rank higher on lists, colleges have become homogenized, each school imitating what they believe to be the perfect model school.

Richardson describes a new ranking system called U-Multirank, designed by the Consortium for Higher Education and Research Performance Assessment that “aims to increase transparency in the information available to stakeholders about universities, and encourage functional diversity of the institutions.” U-Multirank considers research, education, knowledge exchange, regional engagement and internal orientation in its rankings.

Did you use a college ranking list to help choose your school?

Questia.com offers resources for learning more about college and university rankings and finances at its Higher and Adult Education page.

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