Each year Forbes, US News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and many others release what they declare to be the official ranking of America's colleges and universities. These go-to guides for everything from most expensive school to best on-campus food are often regarded as doctrine among the educational community and are responsible for swaying many prospective students towards or away from a college. But how accurate are these rankings and how much can they truly be trusted? If you're the parent of a soon-to-be college student or a student yourself, read this list to understand why college rankings should be taken with a grain of salt.
1. Rankings Vary and Contradict Each Other
Here's an example: Say you're a prospective student interested in attending Florida State University in 2014. Before you make a decision, you're going to check out some rankings of the school in various categories and publications. To be thorough, you're also going to see how the university has advanced or declined by checking out statistics from past years. According to the Forbes review, Florida State ranked 119 in 2012 and rose to 91 in 2013. This all sounds good. But now take a look at The Princeton Review, which in the same breath called Florida State the #6 Best Public Institution in 2013, and #8 for top 20 party schools that same year.
2. Rankings Lack Specificity
A ranking number from a publication like Forbes or The Princeton Review may tell you the perceived value of the school, but it says nothing of the college's subtleties and distinctiveness. A number cannot tell you what campus life is like, what kind of sports programs and extra curricular activities are available and what type of relationships the college has with companies for internships. These things are pertinent details that will affect your college life and future.
3. Colleges Don't Play Fair
A few years ago, The Washington Post covered a yearly ritual that goes on behind the scenes of college deans' and administrators' offices. Each year, these presidents and high ranking admissions staffers are inundated by mailings, reports and promotional swag in the hopes that it will boost their opinion and therefore their ranking of a college or university. Because college administrators vote on each other's schools, this pseudo-popularity contest is a very important and surprisingly questionable part of achieving a favorable ranking.
4. College Administrators Vote Without Any Real Knowledge
As previously mentioned, college administrators are expected to fill out a peer assessment ranking which accounts for 25 percent of a college's score. This is all well and good, except for the fact that a college administrator for the University of California, Berkley might know next to nothing about Old Dominion University in Virginia or Florida State University for that matter, besides what some beefed-up promotional mailings tell them.
5. Previously-Established Reputation Plays a Large Part
What comes to mind when you hear the words Yale, Harvard or Princeton? It's likely that most college administrators are having the same thoughts you are. Reputation plays a small but instrumental role in rankings and students have to be wary of this when they consult these lists. Reputation is surely a considerable part of the reason why Ivy League schools of the past continue to achieve high rankings year after year with little fluctuation. Don't believe it? Just consider what it would take for you to alter your perception of the three schools mentioned above.
Rankings are an important part of choosing a college, but they're not the only part that matters. The standing of individual programs, sports and extracurricular activities, tuition, professor reputation, and your own perceptions of the school should also play a crucial role in your decision to attend or not. These factors matter much more in determining whether your college experience will help facilitate your future success.
By Kelli B Smith