Are magazine rankings for colleges very useful?

Question: How important are the college rankings in magazines such as US News and World Report?

Answer: I recently worked with a student who summarily dismissed a college I recommended that he consider based solely on how that college was ranked on the latest US News and World Report list of best colleges. When I asked him if he understood the methodology behind the ranking, he seemed confused.

Few students or parents, for that matter, delve beyond the numbers to examine the formulas used to tally the scores behind the ranking.

Jeff Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale University, admonishes students to look beyond college ranking since he feels that this “one-size-fits-all” approach is not appropriate when comparing colleges. He states that the characteristics that go into the rankings have little to do with what will be important in the student’s educational experience.

US News and World Report bases up to 25 percent of their total scores on subjective evaluations made by administrators. College presidents, provosts and deans of various institutions are asked to rank other colleges and universities across the country, even though they may not be familiar with the institution in question.

Other factors that ratings take into account include professors’ salaries, the college endowment and alumni giving rate. Consequently, colleges are being ranked by their reputation and resources rather than student outcome. It is no wonder that ivy league schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale are consistently ranked in the top tier.

Forbes magazine has also joined in the ranking game, but places a large emphasis on using and the number of alumni who are listed in Who’s Who in America.

One such example that highlighted the fallacy of college rankings was noting that Forbes had ranked Dartmouth as number 30. Had I not known that this particular school does not use, I might have accepted this score on face value and not have taken the time to learn that it is considered number one in the Ivy League for student teaching and study abroad opportunities.

I do think that ratings have a place as students conduct their college search. I appreciate knowing the median SAT scores of accepted students as well as the student retention rate. Having a clearer picture of the school’s selectivity certainly can help students more accurately assess their chances of being accepted.

College rankings may also be one way to lead students to consider schools they might not have heard of or previously considered. I advise any prospective student to take the rankings with a large grain of salt and use them as a great starting point before delving into the academic offerings, the intellectual and social climate, and the access to faculty, research and study abroad opportunities for each school on your list.


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