Rankings vs. Fit Part II

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part Two of the series.

In Part One, we introduced an important idea: college rankings may not be the most important factor in choosing a school. This may sound simple, but the very purpose of rankings is to present a list of schools from most to least desirable, based upon a series of criteria which vary from one ranking system to the next. U.S. News calculates its rankings based upon “undergraduate academic reputation” (assessed by college administrators and high school guidance counselors), student retention, “faculty resources” (professor salary is the largest component of this section, while student to faculty ratio is the smallest), selectivity (most of this category is determined by SAT and ACT scores,) financial resources, graduation rate, and alumni giving rate.

The Princeton Review’s rankings are composed a bit differently; schools are ranked in 62 different categories, based on student surveys. Topics are diverse, and include information on dorms, dining, health services, and the prevalence of alcohol on campus. As a student I may care quite a bit more about the quality of the food than the salary of my professors, so the Princeton Review ranking system may seem to have more to offer me than the U.S. News version.

However, the number of colleges ranked by The Princeton Review is less than 400 – just over 13% of the total number Title IV institutions granting 4-year degrees in the country. Robert Franek, who authors the guide, says: “Every college in our book offers outstanding academics.” Is the implication that the colleges and universities not included in their rankings don’t offer quality educations?

Unfortunately, the Princeton Review is less than specific in revealing the methodology used to select the schools they review, noting only that “[w]e selected these colleges primarily based on our high opinion of their academics.” U.S. News, by contrast, collects data on approximately 1600 colleges and universities, about 56% of the total schools in the country. While the U.S. News system still appears less than comprehensive, it includes far more schools than The Princeton Review.

One could certainly argue that the number of schools reviewed by any given outlet provides students with an overwhelming array of choices, and that tracking down more colleges and universities to investigate, beyond the several hundred provided, is, well, a bit silly. But understanding the underlying logic of ratings systems can be invaluable in choosing the best colleges for an individual student.

Forbes provides perhaps the most surprising ranking system. One might expect such a magazine to provide mostly financial information. And, in a way, it does. “We’re not all that interested in what gets a student into college, like our peers who focus heavily on selectivity metrics such as high school class rank, SAT scores and the like. Our sights are set directly on ROI: What are students getting out of college?” Forbes’ ranking includes ten percent weight given to RateMyProfessor scores, as well as several metrics measuring student success after graduation: graduate salaries as well as the number of students winning certain awards (Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, for example). Forbes ranks 650 schools, falling between the relatively small number ranked by The Princeton Review and the more comprehensive U.S. News list.

Other ranking systems exist – focusing on everything from public service (Washington Monthly) to earnings after graduation (Money). Which rankings, if any, to consider in the college search should be compatible with a student’s goals and priorities. Because rankings systems disagree regarding which criteria are important for evaluating schools, and even which schools ought to be evaluated, rankings can’t generally be accepted without research into methodologies and some consideration of which factors are most important to an individual student. We’ll discuss what some of those factors might be in the next part of the series.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.