Throw the Book at College Rankings

The rankings U.S. News & World Report gives to colleges and universities count too much toward these institutions’ esteem. Pro or con?

Pro: Stop Fueling the Admissions Frenzy

Over-selectivity is plaguing our college system. Each year, for roughly the past decade, the top 20 schools in the U.S., as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, set new records for the percentage of applicants they reject. In a BusinessWeek commentary published Apr. 17, Duke’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Christoph Guttentag, says his school received 19,170 applications for only 1,665 spaces this year. Among the many exceptional candidates Duke had no choice but to reject, according to Guttentag, were nearly 800 valedictorians.

No one can deny the prestige a diploma from Duke (ranked eight last year), or other consistent top-10 schools like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Princeton, bestows on a graduate’s résumé. But in order to foster an admissions environment that rewards all of our country’s best and brightest—not just those who scored above 1500 on the SAT and can afford Ivy League tuition—we need to do away with the antiquated notion of an institution’s esteem. U.S. News rankings should be first to go.

Initiated in 1983, the rankings weigh seven factors: peer assessment, retention, student selectivity, faculty resources, financial resources, graduation rate performance, and alumni giving rate.

While U.S. News maintains that measurement of these standards is consistent from school to school and from year to year, a 1997 study done by the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center found the weight given to each category is slightly modified each year—sometimes producing drastic changes in rankings. If the magazine didn’t tinker with weighting, it would have a fairly static list that wouldn’t sell many copies at newsstands.

The magazine isn’t the only party profiting from the rankings. Test prep materials and private college consultants have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, thanks to a horde of students who will do anything to get into a top-ranked school. And to universities, a solid position on the list leads to a greater number of applicants, higher selectivity, and ultimately, higher tuition.

Competition among schools inevitably results in more merit-based scholarships and fewer need-based scholarships, as universities attempt to buy those students who will help bolster their ranking.

The U.S. boasts hundreds of excellent schools, but teachers, parents, and potential employers have left today’s students with the impression that these paths are less than sufficient unless they have the right number next to them in a magazine.

We need to start educating youth about the diversity of opportunities available, not holding up the few wealthiest institutions in the land as a standard for all.

Con: Rankings Are a Valuable Tool

There’s a fundamental truth about rankings: Top-ranked players love them, while the ones at the bottom of the pile don’t. And yet consumers continue to gravitate toward these lists, whether they’re buying cars or picking a college.

The reason? Rankings give people added tools to make informed decisions, with data on factors they care about, from average admission grades to the caliber of teachers on staff.

Is it hard to get into a good college these days? Yes. But that’s because of demographics, not magazine features. The larger population of college-age people has created extra competition for coveted spots. That, plus the growing awareness that a college degree is a necessity for anyone who aspires to earn a decent wage, is what really fuels the popularity of SAT test prep courses and the flood of college applications.

Moreover, rankings help ensure an institution’s esteem is based on merit rather than a veneer of prestige blindly handed down from one generation to the next. Schools like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and MIT have longstanding reputations for excellence, but they continue to earn those high marks by consistently investing heavily in top faculty and cutting-edge programs.

The educational community held those institutions in high esteem long before U.S. News & World Report began to publish rankings. But vigorous public rankings have allowed newer, more nimble competitors to emerge, letting students get a glimpse of lesser-known places that offer innovative programs, world-class faculty, and a terrific undergraduate experience. The rankings allow people to quantify some factors that many universities would rather keep to themselves—such as student-teacher ratios and outside assessments on the caliber of graduates. They expose who is delivering the goods and who might be coasting on a reputation not backed by the numbers.

Smart students recognize that rankings are just one tool in the box. The last time I checked, students were still visiting campuses, talking to guidance counselors, and pulling information off the Internet.

And don’t knock the value of competition. I would like to see data proving higher-ranked colleges give out fewer need-based scholarships because they use aid money to "buy those students who will help bolster their ranking." If anything, top-performing colleges can afford to give more scholarships to everyone, because grateful alumni are likely to give back.

The U.S. has hundreds of excellent schools, but that doesn’t mean they’re all equal. Rankings ensure colleges are held accountable—to the people they admit, the staff they hire, and the constituencies they claim to serve. Ill-conceived or poorly executed rankings aren’t likely to hold up in the age of instant communication and transparency. And colleges that try to fudge the numbers are just as likely to be called out by knowledgeable students or competitors.

People who find no value in rankings can simply choose to ignore them. Others can use them to supplement their research. But don’t just dismiss a tool that helps students make smarter decisions about which college is right for them.

Opinions expressed in the above Debate Room essays are for the sake of argument and do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Sean

College rankings are a great tool to separate what are considered upper echelon universities from the mid to lower echelon. They serve as a guide for prospective college students and eventually prospective employers of recent college graduates. Just going to a prestigious university does not mean you are guaranteed a high paying job. There are plenty of Yale and Duke graduates who are a couple years out of school and make under $35k a year. And just because you went to a middle of the road college does not mean you cannot make more than $35k your first year out of college. Trust me, I fall into the latter category. For those valedictorians who did not get accepted by UPenn, Harvard, or Brown, you will undoubtedly still be able to get into a Top 25 university. Too expensive to attend the Ivy League school you have just recently received your acceptance from? There are plenty of public universities that have world-renowned programs in specific majors.

Andrew

I agree with Sean. Just because you get into an Ivy League university does not mean you will come out with a high-paying job or a better lifestyle. I work in a top investment bank in NYC with individuals who have not attended a top-tier university, and their base salaries are well into the six figures. It's not the end of the world if you don't get into a top-tier institution. You just have to work harder to keep yourself in the game.

Bobby

College rankings are an attempt to objectify something that cannot be objectified: education. If there's a way to objectify the value of education, then I'm all for college rankings.

There's too much subjectivity and bias involved in these rankings. For example, a major category of the USN&WR rankings is an opinion survey. Opinion is not fact.

True, people can ignore the college rankings, but unfortunately, most are not aware of the flaws of the rankings. The problem is they believe rankings are fact (which is a mind set these journals count on). Rankings need to be tossed out the window, because they mislead many people to think that a high-ranking college is the best college for everyone. Truth is, a less-known and lower-ranked college may be just as capable of providing a quality education as a high-ranking school.

Kris

If the colleges and universities refused to fill out the profile form for U.S. News, there wouldn't be any rankings. But they keep this game going by giving information about their schools to U.S. News. I would like to see many schools listed with a footnote stating that the school refused to fill out the profile form. To me, it would demonstrate this particular school isn't buying into this ranking frenzy. Another thing? About 25,000 applications for about 2,000 freshmen spots--what a money maker at $50 to $100 per student.

Lucas

A related paper tackles the way law schools are ranked. There are some similarities in the system, particularly the heavy weight placed on reputation. http://www.aals.org/reports/validity.html

rjb

Funny how some schools are in the Top 20 one year and then fall out of the Top 50 the next. Proves how reliable the rankings are!

Sue

Consumers have Consumer Reports and other sources to look at before they spend their hard-earned money on a new car. It's helpful to have at least somewhere to start to compare colleges before investing the cost of a new Mercedes every year for four years. But there is really no substitute for taking kids to visit colleges and giving them a chance to talk to current or former students. No matter how prestigious the place, your kid has to be happy there.

Tom

Most or all of the Top 20 schools have such large endowments that they are no longer beholden or responsible to anybody for anything: not their accrediting associations, not their governing boards, not their alumni, not their students, and not their students' families. Maybe the U.S. News rankings have at least the merit of making these institutions think about and, who knows, even be responsive to, public opinion.

Paul Dorell

The rankings can be helpful for prospective applicants, but their value must be kept in perspective. Ultimately, this is just a marketing tool for the top colleges, which have the resources to make themselves look good on paper. I'm disappointed with the respondents who only think about their salaries after graduation. College is about learning, and I doubt Albert Einstein would make it into a top college today.

James

Many of the top schools (including the Ivies) give no merit-based scholarships at all. If anyone should be called out for trying to buy talent, it's the lower-ranked institutions who use merit money. And is this a surprise? It makes sense that a random school with fewer resources and a lesser reputation would have to pay students to choose it over Yale College or Harvard.

Otto

Rankings are a valid tool. They are not a be-all and end-all, but they are important to consider. Ultimately, it is up to the individual; however, strong brands never hurt one's CV.

Chris

I will start to worry when students rejected at top schools and accepted at the so-called lower-ranked schools do not enroll in them.

R Johnson

The alternative is just what the mediocre schools want: Leave it to every school to define what constitutes quality and then proclaim it has it. Just look at a few Web sites of truly mediocre schools to see the outrageous claims they make about their quality.

Rankings are especially helpful to students who are the first in their family to go to college, because they often don't have the background to know which schools are good and which are self-proclaimed legends in their own mind.

Bill

The rankings are far less important than how badly the schools rip off parents by increasing tuition rates at exponential multiples of inflation. This, only to build edifices to their egos and pay ridiculous salaries to football coaches and other non-academics.

There is no honor left in the academy. Duke, by hiring a marketing director and shamelessly promoting itself in the ratings game, has pushed itself up in the ratings--but it is still nowhere near as good as an Ivy League School.

Susan

The rankings system puts immense pressure on kids and our high schools to place as many bodies as possible into a miniscule number of openings in an equally small number of institutions ranked as top.

Unfortunately, the system will only change when it's the Top-100-ranked colleges who are signing the letters requesting change--and that will never happen, because it's all about the money. The higher rankings bring in sky-high tuition, big-dollar donors looking for glory and credibility, and research money looking for prestige.

There are many fine institutions offering high-quality education in the U.S. Unfortunately, we as parents have bought into the myth that success for our kids comes only from attending a top-ranked school. It would be better if we parents instead spoke with our wallets and encouraged our kids to attend small, quality colleges that meet their educational needs.

Naveen

I don't fully understand the problems caused by the college rankings. If the colleges are using tricks to get themselves highly ranked, that would be a problem. It essentially means they are misleading the students and need to be barred from being ranked at all.

If the U.S. News & World Report is biased toward certain institutions, then that would be a problem again.

But it does not look like those are the issues.

I fully support independent, objective, and fair ranking of colleges. It is a very valuable tool for students. This thing about putting pressure on kids is slightly exaggerated. We are not talking about toddlers. A little bit of pressure might be a good thing.

John

Here is an interesting article about ranking colleges based on their positive impact on the U.S.:

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0609.collegeguide.html

Yasu

U.S. News & World Report's ranking is the best tool for choosing a college for prospective students in overseas countries such as Japan.

Without the ranking, overseas students will get lost, and the result would be applying to only well-known institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Liberal arts colleges should know that not participating in the ranking will lead to the loss of good overseas students.

Lorraine

The www.topmba.com scorecard allows you to personalize your criteria and make your own rankings list, not have it chosen for you by some people you will never meet who don't know what it is that makes you tick.

Ap

Rankings are great resources for college-bound students, especially those who are the first in their family to go. Think about it: Who would know schools like the University of Chicago, Swarthmore, and Washington University in St. Louis were great schools unless there was something to show how great they were? If there were no rankings, it would compound the problem, and only the big names like the Ivies, Stanford, etc. would get large numbers of applications.

The pressure to get into college is astounding these days, especially with the competition in the job market. But college rankings have nothing to do with that; it's just a fact that more people understand going to a top college is incredibly beneficial, and they want in. This competition hurts no one and makes people push harder (the health and mental parts are parent issues).

R Johnson is absolutely right. With no sort of way to compare schools to each other, mediocre schools can make outrageous claims about how good they are and get more solid students when they shouldn't. High tuition costs and admitting students in need are more important issues.

Lawrence

I don't quite understand the problem here. The argument is that students and employers base their decisions on what constitutes a quality school by solely looking at a magazine ranking. I can't see how doing away with rankings will change anything. A new standard will arise and take the place of the US News, rankings and people will naturally gravitate toward the new standard.

The way to fix this is to help young people and their employers realize a ranking is a general tool to gauge a school from year to year. It speaks nothing of the student himself but rather of the school he attended (at a high level). I think the education on how to hire the right people is more important than abolishing a ranking.

Amara Moosa

University rankings are useless and not necessary in today's educational environment. I went to a school that is great, Golden Gate University. However, GGU is not ranked on the list because it caters to working professionals. Yet the school has been around for 100 years. I was able to secure a job one month before graduation day. College rankings makes great schools look bad. Each and every university or college has its place in our society, but because of rankings, some students would not even try to apply to some of these schools.

Nik

Schools need to be rated, not ranked.

Doug

Rankings are fine, but the problem comes when the alumni/professors of an institution start pushing the rankings. The rankings seem to have become incestuous, and we know the short- and long-term results of those kinds of relationships. If an unranked or lower-ranked school creates a new kind of "learning process" that works better than all the others, will anyone ever know it when there is so much of a focus on the "highly ranked" schools? I've worked with individuals from every type of b-school, and so far the higher-ranked school grads are coming up short. Rankings are creating an artificial market. Let the real market create the demand.

Lou

Too bad Consumer Reports doesn't rank school programs. Universities and colleges, as much as they would like to avoid the subject, are institutions that sell a service, and students (and the parents who often pay for tuition) are the consumers. Can a lower-ranked school offer a challenging program? Probably. Can an Ivy League graduate be a mediocre professional? Absolutely. However, many universities offer mediocre programs at the cost of thousands of dollars, but do a very good job of "selling" the campus life. Many students learn this all too late, if at all. And in a world where every graduate must compete against the rest of the world, he or she must give himself or herself the best chance to compete in such a global economy.

Many students are not well prepared to make the best choice, because there is little unbiased information available that will help a prospective student decide where to invest the tens of thousands of dollars he or she will pay and then spend the next 10 years paying back.

The US News and World Report ranking isn't perfect and is no substitute for the individual research and evaluation a prospective student must perform before deciding on a particular college and program; however, until there's an independent organization that can perform such evaluations, it's good source of information.

camiwa

Rankings have always been insufficient to me, probably due to the small number of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) listed.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana. Often I was the only African American in my high school classes. I knew I wanted to experience something different when I went to college. I only considered HBCUs.

At the time, I had 90th percentile SAT scores, and many schools that were listed in the rankings were recruiting me hard (it was in the early 1990s, back when 90th percentile SAT scores meant something, especially for a minority).

Had I actually cared about rankings, I would have missed out on a great experience. Instead, I focused on what I wanted out of college: the ability to be around people similar to me, the freedom to express myself without being a "representative of the entire black race," the knowledge that almost every campus activity would be something I would enjoy. I knew what I was looking for, and I found it.

The rankings average about two HBCUs per year. There are more than 100 HBCUs in the U.S.
I will say that I do check the rankings to see the token HBCUs. And I do have to admit that I was proud when my alma mater made it there. But I hope that future college students base their choice on what they want from their college experience. U.S. News can't tell you that.

Concerned

What bothers me the most about the status quo is not the concept of comparative ranking in and of itself (which I believe is a valuable tool for students), but the methodology employed. If anything comes of this debate, I hope that U.S. News (and other similarly situated institutions) take a hard look at their respective ranking methodology and re-weight their factors or perhaps even devise a new list of factors altogether.

Take, for example, an unnamed public law school, Law School X. In the not-too-distant past, Law School X was ranked in the Top 10. However, in recent times, Law School X has fallen from grace, ranking 15th in 2005, tying for 15th in 2006, and dipping to 18th in the latest report. Why? I would suspect two primary reasons: (1) money and (2) regarding the more recent decline, a reporting error pertaining to how information concerning student employment was submitted to U.S. News. With regard to the latter, it was a data-filing error that will hopefully be resolved next year. With regard to the former, I understand that money is important, but as stated by others, public schools will never be able to have the same amount of funding as their Ivy League counterparts and continue to provide an affordable education to students, many of whom simply cannot afford to pay private school tuition.

This does not mean Ivy Legaue shools are necessarily superior. Schools such as Law School X, even according to U.S. News' own numbers, have a faculty that is just as esteemed and accomplished (if not more so) than several of the schools ranked higher than it. According to third-party rankings, Law School X's graduates rank in the Top 5, behind only NYU, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard. Shouldn't this be a more important factor? Furthermore, some law schools such as Law School X strive to provide legal education opportunities to a higher percentage of minorities. As a result, the class profile may have a slightly lower GPA and LSAT profile than that of Ivy League schools, thus affecting the school's so-called "selectivity." However, isn't there any value to "diversity"? I certainly think so, and would hope that U.S. News agrees.

Angela

Currently, I'm a high school senior doing my research on colleges, putting together applications, etc. For me, college rankings have served only as the first step in a myriad of research options. I'm first in my class, so I'm surely looking at top schools (Ivies, Stanford, etc.), but I also understand that the school on paper is not the school in reality. For instance, I visited Columbia, a great institution with a loud name. I hated it, point blank. College rankings are not going to convince me otherwise.

Also, I understand to apply to three different groups of schools: reach (maybe), reasonable (probably), and backup (certain). My reach schools include institutions such as Harvard and Stanford, but my reasonable also has names not in the Top 25 (USC and NYU). My backup includes UT.

Surely every college-bound senior knows that a college has to fit in every perspective: name, price, environment, and the like. To know all this we scour all Internet sites (www.studentsreview.com, a great site) and visit campuses and talk with current students. Overall, the rankings are a good tool for us to use.

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