Do your homework on college rankings

Published August 6, 2007

Prospective college students should not give too much weight to magazine rankings in choosing a university. They need to do their homework, and fortunately schools of higher education are starting to better educate potential applicants. Several university associations, members of Congress and a commission created by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings are calling for better comparable databases for students and parents.

Many have complained that the U.S. News & World Report rankings aren't particularly meaningful. The magazine attempts to assign positions to each institution, listing the top half in sequential order and lumping the rest into tiers three or four.

The problem, as Eckerd College president Donald R. Eastman III pointed out in announcing his school no longer will submit data, is that the magazine lacks a scientific formula and every school is unique. How would you reasonably compare Dartmouth College, a private Ivy League institution with modest enrollment, to the University of California at Berkeley, a public academic and athletic giant? It's not possible in a simplistic ranking system.

U.S. News tries to rank schools by using statistics and peer review. There are problems with both. The statistical aspects of the magazine's grade can be easily manipulated. For instance, a school can increase its "selectivity rank" by soliciting applications from students it has no intention of admitting.

The magazine asks university presidents for their assessments of dozens of schools, but it's not realistic to think that most have intimate knowledge of more than a handful of colleges.

"It becomes, 'Oh, well, I've heard Harvard is pretty good,' " said Eastman, a member of the Annapolis Group, an association of presidents of liberal arts schools that recently decided to form its own system for students to compare schools.

The New York Times reports that the group is working with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges and hopes to produce a Web site comparing enrollment, graduation rates and net tuition costs by September.

Two public school associations are working on another site that would show statistics on student satisfaction and participation, and how much they actually learned based on standardized tests. A group of research universities is working to come up with data on student costs and performance.

All of these new measures are a welcome addition for students facing a decision about college.

U.S. News' primary goal is to sell magazines, not help high school students make a wise decision about where to further their education. The quality of an institution usually doesn't vary greatly from year to year, but the rankings do because no one is going to buy the 2007 edition if it's the same as the 2006 issue.

This isn't to say that U.S. News rankings are useless. They can be a starting point, but ending research with a single ranking or a database sells both a student and an institution short.