Katelyn Gleason Klapper, CEP
The College Options team works hard to educate families about the realities of ranking lists and why discerning the formula values is so important. Ranking systems were developed years ago to sell magazines, and have devolved into a college competition that compromises the very essence of a good-fit college search.
When we discuss the best resources for our clients to use as they research schools that are a good fit for their needs and interests, we often field questions about the newest editions of annual college rankings. These are issued by publishers like Princeton Review, Money Magazine, Forbes or, the most popular, US News and World Report. Most questions are accompanied by a little chagrin because we suspect that families KNOW they shouldn't be paying as much attention to these as they do—but ranking lists are seductive and they are a national obsession.
With the likelihood of educational quality really not changing all THAT much in a year, why do the rankings always have so much movement? Well, in the case of US News, it's because they are frequently changing the ranking formulas! This year’s formula was adjusted by 5% to include a convoluted “social mobility” measurement.
The variations in the delivery of an education at a small liberal arts college, versus a large privately-endowed university, or a major public flagship institution are all quite different. What's most important is, "What are the factors that are most important to the student who is searching?"
Like any resource, rankings provide one way to assess good fit, but please pay attention to what measurements are being used. Are they quantifiable factors or are they opinions? Factors like student retention and graduations rates, number of faculty with terminal degrees in their field, and dollars raised per student are all verifiable. I personally like to look at "outcome numbers" (i.e. graduation rates) more than the "input numbers" (i.e. admit stats) because this gives me more information about what happens when a student gets to campus.
Student, faculty, and "peer administrator" opinions are often uninformed or one-sided (peer evaluation & reputation is still a whopping 20% of the US News formula). Admissions numbers can be manipulated (like not including students removed from waitlists in their reporting). Statistics from career services only represent those who fill out graduation surveys and rarely represent the entire graduating class--so user beware. College ranking lists can be an interesting place to start a search, but they shouldn't end it.