Published on 2016/04/19
The EvoLLLution | College Rankings Are an Unfair (But Necessary) Evil
There are a number of significant problems with the popular approaches to institutional rankings, but for today’s savvy student-consumers they do not constitute the entire search process.

You have seen them in U.S. News & World Report and other magazines each year: college and graduate school rankings. Without even looking you know that Harvard, Yale, and the rest of the Ivy League schools are ranked at the top in all categories along with the usual non-Ivy top-tier names.

Rankings are everywhere, spliced as finely as the market will bear, with examples that include best schools for veterans, best small schools, best online program, best value for money, best department for a specific specialty in an urban/rural/mountainous setting—it goes on and on. The highly specific lists might yield a surprise or two with a more obscure school name, but that happens rarely.

Your school might be one of the more obscure ones. Year after year, it is not listed inside the Top Ten of anyone’s rankings.  Worse yet, your school may not be on any ranking list at all. Yet you are confident in its fine programs staffed with excellent faculty, graduating highly effective professionals for eager recruiters, and boasting a high average starting salary post-graduation.

Every year, you see those rankings and cry “Not fair!” And you would be right. Rankings are not fair. However, they are important. Let’s first count the ways rankings are not fair:

1. Rankings are a marketing/public relations tool

The rankings business primarily offers a school its branding opportunity, and while many measures might give an indication of an elusive definition of “quality,” a school’s brand is what ultimately determines its ranking. The schools with the best-targeted marketing dollars can invest their resources in building the kind of profile that garners the right answers on a ranking survey.

2. Reputation can outweigh quality

The stronger-marketed institutions may actually be coasting on a fading reputation. An excellent school that has declined in quality because it hasn’t updated its programs might, with the right PR, still be able maintain a top spot in rankings. Meanwhile, a currently excellent school might miss out on a ranking because it does not fit the ranking survey’s narrow criteria. As a result, the school opts out of the rankings game altogether.

3. Rankings hinge on flawed methodologies

The survey methodology that determines some rankings can be flawed. Questions may not be specific or consistent in their definitions, they may not distinguish between full- and part-time faculty, or salary information might not be indexed geographically. A school might have a small cohort of enthusiastic recruiters responding to a survey, but the quality of a small respondent pool cannot compete with the quantity of a larger cohort. Sometimes a school might land ten points higher on one ranking list versus another, or five different schools end up ranked first on five different ranking lists.

4. Rankings create false promise

Rankings can perpetuate the myth that if a student attends a top school, they will land a top job. Yet the reality is that there are countless excellent programs outside the rank of Top Ten (or Top 100 for that matter) that offer myriad opportunities for students and graduates. In any case, the savvy prospective student must know that attending a given school does not make something out of the them; it’s quite the opposite.

5. Rankings ignore the factors that create the student experience

There are many objective factors for school performance that can be weighted and inserted neatly into a ranking system: class size, average test scores and cost, to name a few. However, what rankings cannot measure are the intangibles about a school, such as ease of access to faculty and administration, social climate, or the fit for a specific student based on their level of academic preparation.

In any case there is no point in arguing with the process. Rankings are pervasive and embedded in the media. They affect the prospective student’s decision making. There is one bit of good news: Consulting the rankings are just one part of the students’ search for the right school. They makes their decision based on their own complex personal algorithm of needs and wants. They may even bypass the rankings altogether.

That is not the typical student of course. Even if lists are confusing, even if rankings are published with different criteria and conflicting results, these unfair tools impact application quality and quantity, employer interest, and even faculty recruitment.

Is there any way to combat the injustice and level the playing field? Sadly, no. To get in the rankings game an institution must play its branding cards skillfully and strategically, and be ready to back up its value proposition with real value—in aspects ranging from programs and faculty to climate.

Rankings are unfair. But they matter.

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