A Different Approach To College Rankings

It’s rankings time again. Just last week U.S. News & World Report released their Best Colleges 2009 rankings. If academic librarians think about college rankings at all I suspect that most take a peak simply to reassure themselves that their institution is still highly ranked, to see if it has inched ahead of that long-time competing institution or, heaven forbid, in hopes that it no longer languishes among the dregs of the third-tier institutions. Academic librarians hardly live vicariously through their institution’s ranking. After all, it mostly doesn’t impact on our work. But I expect there is probably a wee bit of smugness or sadness attached to that institutional ranking. While many professionals throughout the higher education industry think we’d all be better off if there were no college rankings, they are immensely popular with prospective students and their parents. Rankings are here to stay.

But if the U.S. News & World Report rankings leave a sour taste in our mouths – we know they’re bad for us yet we can’t live without them – why not take a different approach. Well, Forbes magazine decided to do just that. Created in cooperation with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity these new rankings focus on the quality of the education institutions provide, and how much their students achieve. Called America’s Best Colleges 2008 the rankings include 569 institutions, just a fraction of this country’s 4,000 or so colleges and universities. The Forbes methodology is quite different. It is based on the rankings of 7 million student evaluations of courses and instructors as recorded on the Web site RateMyProfessors.com (25%). Another 25% depends on how many of the school’s alumni, adjusted for enrollment, are listed among the notable people in Who’s Who in America. The other half of the ranking is based equally on three factors: the average amount of student debt at graduation held by those who borrowed; the percentage of students graduating in four years; and the number of students or faculty, adjusted for enrollment, who have won nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes. It seems like a rather strange methodology and the results reflect that. A large research university that is always in the U.S. News & World Report top ten is in the 60s on the Forbes list. Some small institutions were ranked quite highly.

Do an Internet search on college rankings and you will turn up an abundance of ranking lists, everything from best values to best party schools. One of the more interesting ones is the Washington Monthly’s College Guide which is an alternate ranking to the nation’s colleges and universities. It asks the question of whether colleges are making good use of our tax dollars? Are they producing graduates who can keep our nation competitive in a changing world? This ranking is better for a prospective student interested in a good liberal arts education. No matter which rankings you and your colleagues look forward to, keep in mind a point made by the folks at Forbes.

Admittedly, there is an inherent absurdity in ranking colleges and universities with mock precision from first to 569th. The sort of student who will thrive at Williams might drown at Caltech, to say nothing of West Point. And it is possible to get a “Harvard” education at the University of Minnesota, just as it possible to get a “University of Minnesota” education at Harvard. When choosing a school, it is important to match the student to the school.

So enjoy the rankings – they can be fun – but just don’t take them too seriously.

Update – for additional commentary on the Forbes Rankings see this and this at Inside Higher Education. The former is a defense of the rankings by Richard Vedder who worked with Forbes to create them, and the latter ridicules the Forbes Rankings for using RateMyProfessor as a data source.

3 thoughts on “A Different Approach To College Rankings

  1. To condense the multidimensional nature of universities and colleges into a numerical rank is shoddy science indeed. It’s really quite a sad situation that the USNWR guides are even taken seriously. As librarians, we teach the value of authority, yet we keep buying this pablum for our collections. What’s sadder is that university administrators use these rankings to make important campus decisions.

  2. Cool article – I just launched another one of these rankings sites called Vast Rank Vast Rank College Rankings and Reviews – We have a more fun and transparent approach where the rankings are decided directly by the visitors to the site. Google featured us as a featured project using their technologies (we use their maps). It would be cool to hear your perspective. We are new and need more ratings and reviews to get better college rankings.

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