Do College Rankings Really Matter?

Erin Mincer

Last week, U.S. News and World Report released its extremely popular, and potentially irrelevant, list of this year’s best colleges. For the 2016-2017 school year, Colgate moved up seven spots from 19th last year, to 12th this year. When the announcement was posted on Colgate’s Facebook, it garnered almost 650 likes from students, parents, alumni and staff alike. While this is extraordinary news, it also made me think: does this matter?

After doing some research, I was surprised to learn about the methodology behind U.S. News and World Report’s ranking system. The following criteria and weights come directly from the website: graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent), undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent), student selectivity for the fall 2015 entering class (12.5 percent), faculty resources for 2015-2016 academic year (20 percent), financial resources (10 percent), alumni giving (5 percent) and graduation rate performance (7.5 percent). Wow.

So this determines how highly a school is thought of? This ranking system has a major impact  on how high school students determine where they want to spend debatably the four most important years of their lives. For National Liberal Arts Colleges, 33.3 percent of the “undergraduate academic reputation” category was based solely upon high school counselor ratings. Excuse me? In other words, 7.5 percent of a college’s overall score is based upon reviews given by high school guidance counselors – people, who, often times are only judging colleges based on vague ideas about that school’s reputations. This creates the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. A college is thought of as good, so college counselors believe it to be good, thus giving it a high score, which then leads to a better U.S. News and World Report ranking, and so the cycle continues.

Along the same lines, some categories directly relate to one another. For example, “student selectivity for the fall 2015 entering class” accounts for 12.5 percent of the overall score. The “graduation rate performance” accounts for 7.5 percent overall and is based upon what percent of students graduate within six years and predicted graduation rates for current classes. These two categories, however, overlap significantly. Take Colgate’s student body for example. Based upon the stats from Colgate’s website, the class of 2020 has an average ACT score of 31-34, an average SAT score of 660-750 for critical reading, 670-770 for math and an average high school GPA of 3.8 out of 4.0.

Obviously we have an extremely impressive and hardworking student body. However, doesn’t this mean that we are much more likely to graduate within six years than students at some other universities? Similarly, with tuition and fees being $51,955 for the 2016-2017 academic school year (not including $13,075 for room and board), who can afford not to graduate within six years? To me, these two categories are fundamentally based upon the same principle: if you are hardworking, you can most likely graduate in six years or less. When these two categories are added together, this factor accounts for 20 percent of a school’s overall ranking.

It is not only the students that are judged harshly by this system, but professors as well. One subcategory is based on the percent of faculty with “terminal (or doctoral) degrees in their field.” This criteria is based on the assumption that having more education makes you a better teacher. Some of the best teachers I’ve had here lack Ph.Ds, or even master’s degrees for that matter. Instead of enduring more time in the system of higher education, they went out and started living. They worked, they traveled, they acquired stories. They were able to give proof as to why the learning mattered. But, according to this list of criteria, real life experience is not as important.

Some categories were notably absent from determining a college’s ranking. Diversity as well as overall student happiness and satisfaction are not included in the methodology. While the U.S. News and World Report site claims that the alumni giving category “serves as a proxy for how satisfied students are within the school,” I respectfully disagree because that is not always an accurate representation. Alumni giving does not accurately show how current students feel about the institution. I believe that alumni may be able to look back with more fondness once they are no longer immersed in the daily stresses associated with college life. Also, while “average first-year retention rate” is a subcategory, this is not a sufficient category to represent student happiness and satisfaction. In terms of diversity, I can find no category or subcategory that even begins to take this factor into account.

There is no denying that Colgate is a fantastic university, but does our ranking really reflect who we are? Yes, we’re ranked as one of the best National Liberal Arts Colleges, but so were Colby College, Hamilton College, Haverford College, Smith College, United States Naval Academy and Vassar College. Sure we’ve moved up ten spots since the 2014-2015 academic year, but at what cost?