Editorial: Colleges overestimate the importance of rankings

The real-world value of college rankings has long been disputed amongst the individuals and institutions they affect.  Some claim that rankings oversimplify the very complicated process of evaluating a school’s net worth, while others argue that they help prospective students make very difficult decisions between schools.   Last week, however, it was revealed that one of the primary problems with rankings has very little to do with the organizations responsible for producing them or the students their efforts are meant to assist.

Colleges, it would appear, will go to great lengths to win higher spots in the most widely read rankings.  For example, many universities regularly spend billions of dollars on financial aid for academically gifted students that don’t actually need the money but whose presence at the university will help raise ranking statistics.  One college, Baylor University, went so far as to pay incoming freshmen to retake the SAT in order to inflate their average test scores.  And most recently, administrators at Claremont-McKenna admitted to falsifying college entrance exam scores to boost their rankings in US News’ yearly publication.

Now, a little competition between colleges is to be expected.  There are a lot of universities out there, and one of the best ways to keep admissions up is to stand out.  But competition should never be waged at the expense of quality.  And as it stands, some colleges are foregoing the work that needs to be done to improve conditions for their students in order to achieve higher rankings and prestige.

That’s not to mention the fact that many of the ranking systems themselves are of questionable validity.   First of all, there is no reliable methodology to the ways in which different ranking organizations weigh their variables.  For some, the most important factors are SAT scores and average GPA; for others, financial aid and student-to-faculty ratio play more substantial roles.

In any case, the disparity between ranking criteria makes navigating different ranking publications a daunting task for any student interested in knowing why certain colleges place higher than others or whether or not the variables that are the most important to him or her are adequately represented therein.

Also, some of the most common variables by which rankings are determined have very little to do with the quality of the education offered at an institution.  Alumni donations, for example, account for 5 percent of US News’ overall ranking of a given university.  Another 25 percent of the ranking is determined by peer assessments conducted with officials at other schools.

There is, however, no clear reason as to why the amount of money alumni give to an institution or the opinions of staff and administrators from other colleges should have anything to say about the overall quality of the education provided by a university.  These factors may well play into the value of a given college’s name brand, but they do little for the students attending said college.

It’s true that a college’s prestige can reflect on the perceived value of the degrees it awards its graduates, but that perceived value is itself an effect of the college ranking system.  The longer a school remains at the top of the rankings, the more “valuable” the degrees it offers become.  And it just so happens that institutions with more valuable degrees are generally thought of as more prestigious than others.  College rankings, then, often perpetuate the reputations that they claim to evaluate, thereby creating an endless cycle in which prestigious schools remain prestigious precisely because college rankings find them to be so.

Ranking organizations clearly need to take a serious look at the ways in which they evaluate collegiate quality.  One potential way they could improve the dependability of their appraisals would be to focus on more reliable determinants of undergraduate and post-graduate success.  Students could put much more faith in rankings if, for example, they took into account the percentage of graduates who are pleased with their educational experience or have success finding jobs.

It should be noted that, as it stands, the ranking system is not without value.  Rankings can help students analyze the benefits that different colleges may or may not afford them in general.  But the most dangerous thing about college rankings is that they present students with what appears to be a total assessment of an institution’s worth.  The truth is, of course, that different colleges are better for certain types of students and majors than others for any number of different reasons.

Currently, most rankings are not specific, transparent or quantifiable enough to account for all the variables involved in the very complicated task of picking a college to attend.  At best, they should serve as guidelines for the sorts of institutions that students might be interested in.  As ever, the burden of deciding what school in particular is best for a student lies squarely on his or her shoulders.  We can only hope that students do not take rankings quite as seriously as the institutions at which they study do.

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