Rankings vs. Fit Part II

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.

Rankings vs. Fit Part I

Rankings vs. Fit Part I

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 One of the series.

William Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” has generated heated debate at the New Republic and elsewhere. In the original piece, excerpted from Deresiewicz’s new book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, the author argues that education at Ivy League institutions is fundamentally mismanaged and that our most elite institutions are producing graduates incapable of living the kinds of lives that Deresiewicz seems to think they should.

In the ensuing flurry of responses, a few critical questions emerge: What is college for? How should one choose a college?

Deresiweicz, and the authors who have joined the debate, are using “The Ivy League” as shorthand for a group of schools none of them define clearly, muddling the conversation significantly. The Ivies are, of course, a group of eight elite colleges: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. The combined undergraduate enrollment of these schools is just shy of 100,000 students, or about one half of one percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in the country. Deresiwiecz’s ostensible clarification that he refers to “our entire system of elite education,” including private and some public high schools, tutors, test prep, graduate school, and hiring practices, is problematic in its lack of precision. If his concern is, as it seems to be, with the entire system by which we educate and hire young people (not with the Ivy League specifically), why invoke the Ivies in the title?

Here the Ivy League is employed as a symbol of elitism, and of success – pointing to a much larger issue with the way we choose colleges. He comes closest to salient criticism of our current system when he writes: “Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.””

Prestige. Selectivity. Rankings. These are the criteria college lists are made of, right? Most prestigious is synonymous with “best,” which is somehow synonymous with “best for me.” In the hierarchical system of evaluating schools, the Ivy League colleges live at the top of the mountain with all other options somehow less shiny and promising.

Deresiwiecz hints at this disconnect but fails to make the next logical step: the ideal school for me may not be the ideal school for you, the most prestigious school that will accept a student may not be the one at which he or she will get the best education. If we can’t simply choose a college based on its rankings, how should we choose?

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Fun Facts about Audrey Hazzard

1) I’ve visited 42 states and 23 U.S. National Parks. I love road trips!

2) I love to write, and I try to participate in National Novel Writing Month every year. My first year, after finishing a (very) rough draft during the month of November, I printed it out and carried it around with me for weeks. It was so exciting to exciting to have this tangible stack of pages that I had produced! (Unfortunately, I hate editing, so I haven’t done much else with it yet. Feel free to remind me that I’ve got revisions to do!)

3) I love Audrey Hepburn, and I’ve probably seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s 100 times.

4) I am gradually teaching myself to sew my own clothes. So far I’ve mostly made special occasion dresses for themed parties. I have almost no patience for patterns so I usually just draw my own.

5) I came very close to attending Arizona State University. I was enrolled in the architecture program – had signed up for classes and everything – before I was able to visit. When I finally did visit, I found that I was desperately allergic to ASU’s campus and had to change my mind at the last minute! (I ended up attending Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA.)

6) I have an inordinate attachment to Happy Bunny. I have, at various times, owned Happy Bunny socks, bags, a wallet, posters, and bath mat.

7) In between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I participated the History at Sea program put on by the National Maritime Historical Society. We sailed a tall ship (with watch shifts and everything!) and attended history lectures. The ship, the H.M.S. Rose, was later sold to MGM for use in the movie Master and Commander.

8) I believe there is a Gilmore Girls quote for every situation, but I’ve learned it’s usually best to keep them to myself.

9) Cooking is one of my favorite creative outlets and methods of stress relief. The farmer’s market is one of my happy places, and I’m always looking for ways to increase the DIY factor of my food projects. This summer, I am pickling anything I can get my hands on.

10) I attended a Montessori school from kindergarten through sixth grade, and then was home-schooled for one year before high school. I enjoyed both of those alternative educational options, but starting Catholic high school (uniforms! so many rules!) was a bit of a shock.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Randolph College

Name: Audrey Hazzard
College: Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College)
Major: Economics/International Studies


1. What first drew you to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College?

My mom attended RMWC, and I grew up hearing stories of her adventures and the traditions unique to the school (Ring Week, Stomps, Pumpkin Parade). While I considered a *very* long list of schools, ultimately RMWC felt like a place I belonged.

2. What other colleges were you considering?

My final decision was between Arizona State University and RMWC – one of the largest schools in the country and one of the smallest! (They also both offered me full scholarships.) I also considered Knox College, Saint Louis University, Grinnell College, Reed College, Cooper Union, and Simmons College. (Yeah, I was kind of all over the place.)

3. How was the adjustment from high school to college?

In some ways it was easier than I expected – I made close friends almost immediately, and I am still close with some of them today. At the same time, it’s a very demanding school – small, competitive, and intense. I was already burned out from a demanding Senior year, and probably shouldn’t have started college with a sleep deficit. A bit of advice for students: make time for sleep now! It definitely doesn’t get easier. =)

4. What was your favorite class? Why?

One of the reasons I picked RMWC instead of ASU was that I’d have more time for electives in a liberal arts environment (versus the architecture program I’d picked at ASU). I took a lot of special topics and interdisciplinary classes, but my favorite was an American Culture seminar. I was one of two students in the class, and we had two professors. We met twice a week to discuss books, essays, and current events. I read and wrote more that semester than before or since, but it was an amazing experience.

5. What clubs or groups were you involved in?

Amnesty International, The Sundial (newspaper), Bridges (GSA), Spanish Club, Environmental Club, and a valiant effort at starting a Caving Club that never quite made it to official status.

6. Anything else you want to tell us?

Dorms and food are both fantastic. I’d be lying if I said those weren’t serious considerations when I made my final decision. We a Sunday brunch, often with live music, that residents of the community would attend. Kind of awkward wandering down to brunch in your PJ’s to find a bunch of local residents in church clothes, but the food was that good!

7. In one sentence, what do you love about your school?

I loved the traditions, sense of community, and accessibility of faculty and staff.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.