October 7, 2009

Ranking the U.S. College Rankings

I was just reading an article this morning about women's professional tennis and the flaws in its ranking system. I also see weekly reviews often at this time of the year when different people are giving their opinion about the various ranking systems in college football. There are computer programs that use data analysis; there are coaches votes; there are win/loss and strength-of-schedule ranking systems . . . indeed, there are different ranking systems based on the weight of each different criteria that is ranked. Honestly, I find it to be a bit of overkill. So how do the U.S. College Ranking systems work? Which U.S. College Ranking organization is most reliable?

So this is the most important thing to remember before you read any further: if a school makes you happy and the education that you are getting is of value to you, you should not be too concerned or caught up in where, exactly, that school lands in any of the number of U.S. College Ranking lists. So, with that out of the way, let's cut to the chase about these dubious (and multitudinous) U.S. College Rankings.

Are they (U.S. College Rankings) legitimate for the quality of academics that are available at each school for every single person? No.

Do they have any necessary influence on how much money you will be earning when you graduate? Not really. Look, if you're going to be a high school math teacher in Arkansas coming straight out of Harvard versus Arkansas State, you're making the same salary. If you're graduating with a degree in business, try to go to a school that has a strong alumni network and is near or in a city with booming industry. But don't make your choice on college based on what you HOPE will be your future career earnings. Things like this, when revealed to rationale people, just make you sound like a pompous fool.

Back to the U.S. College Rankings.

Will you be happier at a school which is ranked 20th in "level of student satisfaction" than you would be at a school ranked 30th in the same category? Not necessarily.

Can you find someone at every school in this fair nation who thinks that their school is the best school there is? Probably.

Can you find someone who thinks that their school is the worst? Almost without a doubt.

Certain aspects, which I think can be glaring, are not factored in to many of the U.S. College Rankings, such as student suicide rate, student exercise rate, and alumni involvement (no, I don't mean JUST financial donations- there are other ways to serve your institution). I also believe strongly that whereas the quality and diversity of food was extremely important in my college selection, some people just don't have such a refined palate. And where Greek life might have played a significant role in your selection of college/university, for me it did not. But these are both areas which are tucked away and given a very arbitrary amount of weight in the College Ranking process. For some, however, they deserve more or less mention than they do get.

One of the major points of the U.S. College Rankings has to do with the number of faculty on a campus, and the number of those faculty who hold what are considered "terminal degrees". A terminal degree is the highest degree that a person in that specialty can achieve. So, in English literature, the terminal degree would be a Ph.D. However in a field such as creative writing and poetry, it might be an M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts). So, when we read that 98% of a universities faculty hold terminal degrees, that's all well and good. However, some of the best teaching, many would argue, has come from those who do not have the terminal degree or maybe they're pursuing it. Perhaps they enjoyed the teaching aspect and not so much the research necessary for finishing a doctoral program. Who am I to say? But I do know that the rankings think that they can judge that and while it MAY be true in some cases, it is certainly not true in all.

If there is anything that U.S. College Rankings have done is that they have increased the hype for a small pocket of elite schools across this country. This has been, essentially, a self-fulfilling prophecy for those schools because when an alumni sees his/her school around the top of a U.S. College Ranking list, the swelling of pride might just induce a monetary donation. That monetary donation can be one small step in actually raising the profile and ranking of said university even more, which then makes even more alumni swell with pride and donate, as they believe the value of their degree is also being enhanced by this ranking. Be aware supportive elite-university alumni. A recent article had a very interesting point to make:


I don't know if I have actually made any significant progress towards a conclusion on whether or not U.S. College Rankings are beneficial or harmful to our system of higher education. So, in summary, I would say that while there is certainly some validity to ranking categories like "class sizes", "average incoming gpa" and "graduation rate", because these are statistics that should be known and available to all students who are researching prospective schools, do any of these mean that YOU will be more or less successful at a top-ranked school versus a school ranked somewhere in the ambiguous folds of the pages of some U.S. College Ranking magazine? No.

And in response to the question regarding WHICH U.S. College Ranking system is most reliable? Well, the answer is simple, of course: Your college ranking system is most reliable! Visit a campus, call the admissions office, read about it on the website, chat with students who go there, etc . . . Are we really becoming such passive thinkers that we have to just rely on what information other people give us? No. We are smarter than this.

Please don't think that way. Or soon, you, too, will begin to sound like a bit of a pompous fool.

If YOUR college ranking system fails you, contact me. I am never one to hold back on this topic.

As always, thanks for reading and don't hesitate to email me if you need help deciding whether you should apply to Harvard or Arkansas State--or both.