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College Rankings Rundown

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Danielle Oberdier is mired in college application season.

“There was always an expectation that I would go to one of the best colleges,” Danielle said.

For this Stuyvesant High School senior, finding the best college meant spending part of the summer visiting campuses, talking to current college students and checking out the latest issue of U.S. News and World Report.

U.S. News publishes an annual list of college rankings. So what’s the headline this year? Two schools are sharing the number one spot on the list of national universities; that’s right, it’s a tie between Harvard and Princeton.

The magazine ranks hundreds of schools as “best,” “second-best,” and so on. It seems to influence not just teens making choices about college, but also the schools that are ranked within their pages as well. Some universities, like Arizona State, promise the president bonuses if their school moves higher up the rankings.

Other colleges, like Clemson University in South Carolina, force class size to remain small, since the smaller the classes, the higher the ranking. It’s a numbers game, and some educators say that’s not a good thing.

“The worst thing about U.S. News is, they not only present the data, but they then purport to rank every school,” said Reed College president Colin Diver.

But the magazine defends itself, saying it wants to help readers make good decisions, reports Channel One News reporter Jessica Kumari.

“There is also just the plain old journalistic accountability element to this,” said U.S. News education editor Kenneth Terrell. “We want these schools to be held accountable for what it is that they’re offering to the student and their communities.”

What does it mean when one school is ranked above another? Is number 8 — Duke — really a better school than number 15 — Cornell? And how exactly does U.S. News and World Report put together its rankings lists?

“We look at 15 different academic indicators or measure for each individual school when we’re compiling its ranking,” Terrell said.

Those measures include hard data, like:

  • Student-to-faculty ratio
  • Graduation rate
  • SAT scores
  • Alumni giving rate, or how many graduates donate money

The data makes up 75% of a school’s entire score. The other 25% comes from the results of an opinion survey that the magazine sends to presidents and top administrators within their school’s category. The survey asks them to rate their rival colleges.

“These people are always in a position to know that because you always know your competition,” Terrell said.

That peer survey has caused some controversy among colleges who claim it’s easy to manipulate such a large part of a school’s overall ranking. In the past several years, some schools, like Stanford, have refused to fill out the survey. Colin Diver, the president of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, has even called it a “beauty contest” questionnaire.

“When I’m asked to rank, or at least to classify, into five quality categories, 220 liberal arts colleges,” Diver said, “I honestly cannot do that for more than about half a dozen colleges.”

It might be like asking you to judge how smart your classmates are. You can do it for a few of them but could you do it for hundreds? Even though Reed stopped participating in 1995, U.S. News still ranks the school on its list of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.” The magazine uses a footnote to explain the school’s refusal to fill out the opinion survey or provide hard number data.

If a college wants nothing to do with the list of rankings and has stopped participating, why does U.S. News still include it?

“You’re taking financial aid dollars, you’re taking research dollars, you’re taking tuition dollars from these families,” Terrell said. “We want to find out whether or not you’re measuring up to what you’re charging people.”

President Diver agrees that students should be able to compare schools. He mentioned College Navigator, a government website that’s searchable, full of data and free.

“It doesn’t purport to rank schools. It doesn’t purport to say that School X is better than School Y,” Diver said. “It simply says ‘Here’s the info about School X, here’s the info about School Y. You choose, you decide.’”

But in the end, do the rankings matter? According to a study in the journal “Research in Higher Education,” yes, they do matter. The study found that moving up the list of national universities, especially onto the first page of the magazine, means more applicants, more money and more students to pick from.

When it came to figuring out Danielle’s top college choice, the rankings were on her list, but they didn’t rank number one. Danielle used the U.S. News rankings to flesh out her list of target schools. But this budding musician and writer has known about her top choice since she was very young.

“Northwestern has a dual degree program in journalism and music because they have two separate schools in both those areas,” Danielle said.

But do the rankings help most college-bound students narrow all those choices down?

“I think the rankings are inevitable and also really helpful,” Danielle said. “[But] I think that when you’re choosing a school, you probably shouldn’t go solely on the rankings.”

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