Sunset for College Rankings?

If you’ve spent any time at all on the College Confidential discussion forum, you’re no doubt aware of all the controversy about college ranking lists, especially those published annually by U.S. News and World Report (USNWR). Ranking mania has seeped into almost every corner of of the higher education admissions game, from undergraduate through graduate and professional schools.

It seems as though almost anyone with access to a publishing platform is getting into the game. One ever-present thread on the CC forum involves something along the lines of “Rank your top 20 liberal arts colleges,” or something similar, covering the Ivies, grad schools, engineering, schools, musical theater programs, med school, law school, etc., etc. The tsunami of subjectivity is overwhelming.

Which brings us to the point of “What is the point?” Some think that USNWR is in it just to sell magazines and Web subscriptions. The same could be said of others who persist year after year in creating their seemingly endless lists of sometimes arcane categories — “Best Northeast small colleges with the best food and greenest quads” (yes, I jest).

Oddly, and perhaps sadly, more than a few students and parents cling to the elusive rationale of these ranking “authorities” to make decisions about where to send their hard-earned money. It’s as if they do not have the ability to discriminate a good school from a not-so-good school using their own evaluation criteria. Thus, the appealing mass market for the rankers.

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There have already been cracks in the foundation of even the stalwart rankers, such as USNWR. The reason for those cracks is becoming more apparent, according to new survey information.

Kaplan Test Prep, a company that maintains an ongoing and informative survey program, has just released a new survey that surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) notes:

Pre-Law Students Put Heavy Emphasis on U.S. News & World Report’s Rankings, but Most Law School Admissions Officers Want Them Gone

My first reaction to this was a kind of mental edit that resulted in a revised headline, one which I am longing to see:

High School Students Put Heavy Emphasis on U.S. News & World Report’s Rankings, but Most College Admissions Officers Want Them Gone

I could raise a glass to that!

But, back to the actual survey results … Here’s what Kaplan said in their press release:

“With U.S. News & World Report set to announce its annual law school rankings at 12:01 am on Wednesday, March 16, both aspiring law school students and anxious law school deans will be clicking the refresh button on the rankings page into the wee hours of the morning. But the two audiences have different motivators, as Kaplan Test Prep surveys find a wide gap between how law schools and their future students feel about the rankings and the role they play in the admissions process.

“According to a Kaplan survey of over 1,000 pre-law students, 73% say U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings will be an important factor in their decision of where to apply and enroll. But most law school admissions officers think rankings should play a less important role.  A separate Kaplan survey of 120 law schools across the United States shows that only 40% think U.S. News & World Report’s rankings should be an important factor in future applicants’ decision making processes. In fact, over half (52%) of admissions officers agree with the statement, ‘I think it would be in everyone’s interests – prospective students, current students, alumni and school administrators – if there were no rankings lists at all.’ In contrast, only 31% of pre-law students share the view that the rankings should be done away with.

“‘The U.S. News & World Report rankings have long been a part of the law school admissions process and can be helpful for aspiring attorneys as an aggregate source of data around job placement statistics, student population, academic life, and other areas of interest. But one thing we’ve acutely observed is that the actual rank ordering is often more important to law school administrators and their alumni than it should be for applicants,’ said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs, Kaplan Test Prep. ‘We do understand why the rankings remain so important to students though, as there’s a strong correlation between a school’s ranking and starting salary. That matters a great deal to those eager to pay off their student loans. But there are so many more important factors that should go into choosing the right law school. For law schools, rankings matter because they know a high position not only attracts the strongest applicants, but also because it’s a powerful tool in securing alumni donations.  Conversely, when a law school’s place in the rankings drop, law school administrators’ jobs can be in jeopardy. Unfortunately, that’s the dark side to it.'”

More information about how the surveys were conducted is located here.

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So, apparently, even some law schools think negatively about rankings. What do other higher education institutions think abut rankings? Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article in HigherEdJobs dated July 2015:

The Problem With College Rankings

[From College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), by Ryan Craig.]

college disrupted

In June, in the wake of extensive public debate, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) made the decision not to publish college rankings of its own. This decision was the right one. After all, rankings don’t matter nearly as much to students as they once did.

Thank goodness, as rankings have had such a negative impact on higher education.

The 15 rankings currently published in the United States are primarily derived from easy-to-measure input like student selectivity, faculty resources (namely, class size and student-to-faculty ratio), spending per student, library holdings, and research productivity.

Unsurprisingly, the same elite colleges consistently lead these lists. So consistently, in fact, that U.S. News might as well rank colleges each year based on institutional age. This is because the rankings systems are consciously engineered to measure what elite colleges do well: lavish money and resources on really bright, motivated students.

Nonetheless, the impact of rankings is pervasive. “No one in the United States tries to figure out what a great university is,” says Andreas Schleicher, head of the education arm of OECD, the organization of developed economies. “They just look at the Ivy League.” …

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If you would like to delve deeper into the issue of college rankings, check the links on this page.

I use the word “sunset” in my post’s title. I’m so convinced that there is a ground swell of backlash about rankings that I might even add a fourth prognostication to my list of Three Predictions for 2016 that states:

4. A major sea change lies ahead for the college ranking business.

This would parallel the changes in public attitudes toward and business philosophies of the College Board/ETS that I have predicted. Unless you have been in a coma for the past year or so, you have no doubt noted that “the times, they are a changin’,” especially in the world around us globally and here in America, and among some alleged “vaunted” institutions. Keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening. Don’t be fooled or caught off guard.

Bottom line regarding college rankings: Don’t let them override your gut, your head, heart, or — especially — your wallet when it comes to making a choice about where to apply and enroll.

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.