Mythbusters: Rankings and Guides

Don’t worry — this isn’t going to be a rant or tirade or anything. I know college rankings tend to be a pretty hot topic, for a myriad of reasons; year after year, national media runs stories and op-eds calling attention to the rankings and their controversial nature. Philosophically, universities and admission offices often struggle with how to react to rankings (as you’d expect, colleges will tend to boast about rankings when they’re favorable and ignore or decry them when they’re not).

But I’m more interested in the practical. Should you use rankings in your college search/decision-making process? If so, how, and to what extent? That’s what we’ll be mythbusting today. I’m also going to include a subsequent post with some specific examples I frequently encounter.

Let me begin by saying that different college rankings and guidebooks can serve as a great introduction to a range of colleges and universities. They can give you the opportunity to encounter schools you might not otherwise consider, as well as quickly learn the basics about a lot of excellent schools (student body size, public/private, urban/rural, etc.) And this is where, in my opinion, rankings and guides are best used, if you’re going to use them — at the beginning, when you’re starting your college search.

But high school seniors, take heed. My frank opinion is that you should never use rankings in deciding where to apply and, ultimately, where to enroll. The farther along you get in the college process, the more you should rely on your own experiences (campus visits, interactions with students and faculty), and the less you should look to rankings and guides. Your experiences are so much more valid than what someone wrote in a book last year or what some statistical survey determined. You should apply to and enroll at the institutions that you feel are the best fit for you, regardless of how they fall in the rankings.

And this is the issue that so many college admission professionals have with rankings. Rankings by their very nature encourage the choosing of schools based on perceived reputation, not on fit. And fit is what college is all about — it’s about going to the college or university that best suits you, where you will be most at home and find the opportunities that are most important to you. (Actually, the rankings can work both ways in this negative regard… they can also encourage colleges to pick students based on certain criteria that will boost their rankings, rather than selecting the students who seem the best fit for their unique campuses. So it’s a two-way street in terms of the potential effects rankings can have.)

Why is fit more important than rank? There are a lot of reasons, but chief among them is that rankings can only capture so much. In fact, they can only capture what they’re designed to capture. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: rankings are only as good as the methodology they employ. If you’re going to pay attention to rankings in any capacity, you need to be an informed user, to look carefully at how they’re set up, at how they’re determined. I’m not saying that there’s no value in measuring schools against each other in different dimensions… but no ranking system can ever capture all the subjective variables that make each college unique and special. At best, each system can quantify a few objective statistics, perhaps based in part on some subjective survey data. (See my next post for concrete examples of what I’m talking about.)

If you look carefully at the methodology behind the rankings, you’ll get a much better sense of how to use them appropriately. You’ll understand what exactly is being measured, and you’ll also notice the weaknesses (or things that aren’t being measured). And the closer you look, the more you’ll begin to see that differences in rank are often minute. The differences between the #10 and #200 school on a list might be significant and worth paying attention… but the differences between #10 and #20 probably aren’t all that great. (I think of all those students who look at our business school’s #15 ranking and ask me why they should choose it over a school ranked #8 or #11. The fact is that out of the hundreds of business schools in the country, we’re at the top; a difference of 4 or 7 spaces is not that significant. Plus, some of the strongest, most unique and appealing advantages of our business program here at Richmond are things that BusinessWeek doesn’t account for in its ranking methodology.)

So the long and short of it? Rankings can be used as a helpful tool, if you’re a conscious and informed user who pays close attention to how they work. They’re best used early in the college process, as part of the exploration and search process. And they probably should not be consulted extensively in making decisions about where to apply and enroll; rather, you should rely on your own criteria, experiences, and feelings to make those choices.

A special note for international students: Keep in mind that rankings of U.S. universities are unofficial, created by private sources, not the government or government commissions. They are viewed as subjective by potential graduate schools and employers; going to the #2 school over the #8 school in a particular category is not going to advantage a student the way it might in many parts of the world where the precise ranking of your school can make a difference in how your credentials are viewed. This just isn’t the case in the U.S. system — reputation is certainly a factor, but employers and graduate schools are going to be much more concerned with your performance and experience in college than the rank of the college you attended.

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