The Validity Of College Rankings

By Madeleine Zhou, Opinions Editor

Google “college rankings” and you’ll find endless lists from various sources, including US News and World Report, Forbes, Business Insider, and more. While the top spots typically go to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (in varying order, depending on which list is used), the lists tend to be different afterwards. If these ranking all vary, then how valid can then really be?

Perhaps the most popular college ranking list comes from US News, which publishes a new list annually. In fact, the most recent one came out on September 13, 2016. Some students and parents vigorously abide by these rankings and refuse to consider schools that are not within a certain ranking. This mindset gives these lists too much importance. In order to judge the legitimacy of them, one needs to take a look at the criteria used.

US News says that they have fifteen ways to measure the quality of a school, including its graduation rate, retention rate, and student selectivity. While these seem reasonable, one of the other categories, undergraduate admission reputation, is essentially subjective. This category accounts for 22.5% of the overall assessment of a school and is broken down into peer assessment survey and high school counselors’ ratings. When it comes down to a school being, for instance, #10 or #11, this category can have a major impact. Do Johns Hopkins students have a “better reputation” than those from Northwestern? How does this make a school “better” when it is simply based on the opinions of outsiders? Also, their assessment methods change frequently, resulting in slight differences between two lists from consecutive years. For example, in the 2012 US News list, Harvard was ranked first, but in 2013, it was ranked second. It is hard to imagine that Harvard did something that would downgrade them, making aspects of these rankings arbitrary.

Additionally, in response to published rankings, schools will typically take action to push themselves higher up the list, and some will go so far as to lie in order to appear high-ranking. For example, in 2012, Claremont McKenna College, a small school in California, admitted that it had sent inflated SAT score reports to publications such as US News for several years in order to receive better rankings. While not all schools lie, many still play games. Part of US News’ judgement of a school is the school’s selectivity, so in an effort to lower acceptance rates, some schools may make efforts to increase the size of their applicant pool and then turn away a large portion of those students.

While these ranking lists can be useful, they should be used to assess schools in a more general manner. A slight difference in ranking does not necessarily mean that one school provides a better education than the other, and a large part of the ranking process is subjective. Students should focus on whether or not they like the atmosphere and culture of a school rather than just the numbers.