Higher Ed Loves and Hates The Rankings

US News College Rankings LogoRankings season is upon us once again.

The sigh you heard earlier today was one of relief from marketing, web and communications folks as the U.S. News & World Report college rankings for this year were officially released.

We all knew about them yesterday, of course, but had to keep our lips sealed due to embargoes. Besides, we needed the time to create press releases, web graphics, Facebook posts and much more.

Rankings season is interesting – as higher ed institutions, we love when we’re ranked highly and we sure promote the heck out of it when we move up or keep up our rankings.

Personally, I think it’s great that U.S. News has named my institution a top institution in the midwest for 25 straight years. It’s a great marketing point that perhaps will put our name in front of a student and family that had never heard of us or give us a second glance due to that long history of good rankings.

It’s also time for institutions to say they’re thankful for the rankings and poo-poo them at the same time, saying they don’t always present an exact picture of the institution. They love to say they’re well-recognized in their geographical area, but say the rankings, mysterious formulas and “peer reviews” only tell a part of the story.

Why do we worry so much about U.S. News’ rankings?

In the pre-Internet era, U.S. News & World Report’s College Rankings were a very important tool for researching schools. When I was looking at colleges in the mid-90’s, it was a way for me to quickly look up a particular school, see some programs, costs and other basic information. If it was a school I found interesting, I’d call or send a letter (gasp) to them asking for more information. I couldn’t do the kind of school shopping online that kids and parents do today.

Even NACAC, in a 2012 report, said that high school counselors don’t think the U.S. News rankings matter all that much. CBS News put out a story  with several reasons people should ignore the rankings. The article says:

In reaction to the criticism that mars this annual collegiate beauty pageant, U.S. News once again tinkered with its college rankings methodology. The rankings goliath gave less weight to class rank, which fewer high schools are reporting. On the other hand, U.S. News put more weight on ACT and SAT scores, which are correlated by family income.

The big question is do we need rankings at all anymore?

Is the difference between #1 liberal arts school Williams College and #2 liberal arts school Amherst College really that big? Both are excellent institutions with long and storied histories and I’m sure you’d leave there with an excellent education.

Each campus across the county  has its own language and way of doing things. It’s own traditions and idiosyncrasies that connects students across generations.  In today’s age of social media, websites and more, schools can put forth what makes them individual, more than they ever could in 3 or 4 paragraphs in a guide-book or website.

The investment is too great to be basing decisions on a mysterious formula that changes every year and requires schools to be positive about each other. Again, from the CBS story:

A major factor in the rankings is what everybody else thinks about each other. Three administrators at each of the institutions in the national university category, for instance, must assess what they think about all their peers on a one-to-five grading scale. What do administrators at UCLA and Notre Dame, however, know about what’s going on at the University of Texas, Oregon State or the University of South Florida?

Did you know that “Don’t know” was an acceptable answer on these peer surveys? How is that statistically valid?

Think about it – if you were going to spend a ton of money on a car, would you look to a trusted publication like Car and Driver to see their in-depth reviews and rankings, stats and specs and so on? Maybe for some background information, but nothing beats sitting in the car, taking it for a drive, cranking up the stereo and seeing what it can do.

Malcolm Gladwell talked about this very idea in a New Yorker column back in 2011. He says:

Car and Driver’s ambition to grade every car in the world according to the same methodology would be fine if it limited itself to a single dimension.

College is about more than an SAT data point or median cost. College today is about finding the right fit for the student–finding a place where they’ll succeed, grow and leave on time ready for the world. With 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, the right school is out there

I’m not that far from starting the college search process with my own kids. Here’s how I see our search going down: maybe we’ll glance at the various rankings, but for my money, the campus visit and tour is one of, if not the, most important part and will quickly give you an idea of if an institution is right for you, more than any ranking will.