What is college ranking mean?

All top newspapers and websites post a list of top Colleges according to their majors, schools and most enrolled students. What do these rankings mean? Should you depend on these rankings completely and decide on a college based on them? Let’s discuss what these rankings are based on and what they mean.

The data that helps decide which college is the “best” and which is not is collected from information released from the colleges and universities themselves. 

Editors of the newspapers and websites can creatively interpret the information they do (or don’t) receive. For example, should an institution choose to abstain from submitting data, at least one publication editors will resort to a formula that creates values for that institution based on the values of its presumed peers.

Before we discuss more about college rankings, here is a list of things considered while making a list of top colleges:

  • Annual revenue
  • Number of students 
  • Number of ancillary services or practice areas
  • Success ratio of average number of students admitted to top 25 U.S. colleges and universities, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report 
  • Client satisfaction (testimonials/votes)
  • Social media presence
  • Executive thought leadership
  • Editorial input

Rankings are highly subjective. Consider, for example, reputation. In the U.S. News & World Report rankings reputation carries the greatest weight. On the surface, that might make sense—until you come to know how reputation is “measured.”

Each year, U.S. News & World Report sends three ballots to each participating school asking the recipients (president, academic dean and dean of admission) to rate peer institutions on a scale of five to one. The assumption is that these individuals know higher education better than anyone else and are best positioned to make qualitative assessments.

What do you think? Could you provide such a rating for each of the high schools in your state? It is highly doubtful, just as it is highly doubtful that these three voters can make objective assessments of peer institutions across the country. Consequently, fewer than half respond. Many, who do complete the rating form, admit they are making educated guesses. To address related concerns, the editors now solicit ratings from selected guidance counsellors as well. Not surprisingly, the participation rate among all “voters” continues to be low. That said, what do the rankings really tell you about reputation?

Rankings change each year because …? Change is glacial in nature on college campuses, yet every year the outcome of the rankings’ change. Why? At least one ranking guide (U.S. News) admits to changing or “tweaking” its formula each year—further evidence of the subjectivity involved as well as the editors’ need to maintain uncertain outcomes from year to year.

Apples and Oranges. While many institutions might look alike on the surface, they are very different in respect to their programs, instructional styles, cultures, values and aspirations—another reason why trying to rank them is a daunting, if not impossible, task. This is why it is like comparing apples to oranges. It is difficult to compare all the institutions based on one set formula. Some students might like an engagement-based learning while some students might like just listening.

Project yourself into the picture. You must ask yourself, “What do the editors of ranking guides really know about me?” Where, for example, do they talk about the colleges that are best for the bright, but timid student who wants to study classical archaeology or the student who learns best through engagement in the classroom or the young person whose sense of self and direction is still emerging? What tangible takeaways do college rankings offer that apply to your situation?

Look for evidence that rankings will make a difference in your college planning outcomes. Ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” Unlike the purchase process with other commodities (cars, appliances, etc.), the ultimate choice of a college is the product of a mutual selection process. Rankings don’t get students into colleges nor do they necessarily point you in the direction that is best for you.

Over the last 30 years, the college-going process has been turned upside down by ranking guides. Whereas the focus should be on the kids—and what is best for them—college ranking guides put the focus on destinations that are presumed to be most desirable. In reality, they are artificial metrics for quality in education that detract from sensible, student-centered decision-making.

Herein lies the disconnect. If ranking guides are truly useful to consumers, why do so many students apply to schools where the chances of gaining admission are less than one out of four? And where is the usefulness of college ranking guides when barely half of the students entering college this year will graduate from any college during their lifetimes?

Among other things, rankings promote a destination orientated and an obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. Where the student might be headed becomes more important than what is to be accomplished or why that goal might be important or how the institution might best serve the student. When distracted by the blinding power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few institutions, it is easy to lose sight of one’s values and priorities as well as the full range of opportunities that exist.

To conclude, keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. Resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. Instead, focus on developing a list of colleges based on who you are, why you want to go to college and what you want to accomplish during your undergraduate years. These things will help you choose a college that is suitable for you. And don’t lose sight of how you like to learn. Stay student-centered and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.

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