College Rankings: Good, Bad, Or Ugly?

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, college rankings seem to be with us forever. And even those among us who claim to despise the rankings are often the first to devour the latest editions as soon as they hit the streets. So what’s good about rankings, and what are their pitfalls? College Confidential is here to give you the inside scoop.

What are these “rankings” you’re talking about?

If you’ve started thinking about the college process but still haven’t heard about college rankings, more power to you. You’ve managed to avoid one of the more controversial, much-maligned aspects of the admissions universe. But, since your ignorance-is-blissfulness probably won’t last long anyway, we’d like you to get the whole story from us. So, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the ‘rankings’ lingo, or who want to know more about who started the fire…and when, then find a brief history of college rankings here.

So What’s Good about College Rankings?

Although many college administrators are reluctant to admit it, ratings of colleges can indeed serve a useful purpose for parents and students trying to select schools.

The Numbers. First, ranking reports often come with detailed data to support their conclusions. U.S. News in particular includes lots of statistics in convenient tables and lets the reader perform side by side comparisons of individual schools. While much of this data may be available from the schools themselves or in a variety of college books, it’s certainly convenient to have it all in one place. In addition, although data collection methods are often criticized, the editors of these reports usually make an effort to insure that statistics are reported comparably-something that might not happen when comparing numbers taken directly from individual school publications.

The statistics that come with the rankings can also suggest topics that need to be researched in more detail. For instance, a student might find that a school she is interested in has an unusually low percentage of freshmen who return for sophomore year compared to similar schools; she might wish to find out more about this issue during visits or other research. Even for those who are willing to ignore the overall rank, it can be helpful to peruse figures such as “% of classes under 20″ or “Average graduation rate.”

Ideas. All college rankings have one thing in common: they are lists of schools. As such, they can be of assistance early in the college selection process by being sources of ideas for students and parents. Used this way, rankings can help expand the list of schools that can then be researched in more detail. Some students-and especially parents-are reluctant to consider an unfamiliar school. But then, if they see that unfamiliar Emory is ranked ahead of Georgetown or that Rice bests NYU, they may be more open to new options.

Positive Motivation for Change. College rankings do influence the behavior of our educational institutions. Sometimes this can be a good thing. A school that finds itself ranked lower than its peers because of a lower retention rate might, for example, beef up its counseling, tutoring, and advising services. Similarly, a school might break larger classes into smaller ones if its class size statistics looked unfavorable.

What’s Wrong With College Rankings?