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.