How College Rankings Apply (Or Don’t) For Adult LearnersCindy Miller | Director of Columbia College Global Civilian Region 2 and Director of Columbia College Kansas City, Columbia College
The ranking of colleges and universities is big business, especially with millions of student consumers shopping online for the “right” college. Such ratings are promoted in the popular press as well as by legitimate academic organizations. Some are objective and based on quantifiable or measureable characteristics and others are highly subjective, not much more than a popularity contest.
Rankings affect institutions’ application and admission rates, and some colleges are so concerned about theirs that they link administrator pay levels to increased rankings. Critics of the ratings charge that they are colored by the size of the college endowment and/or are merely a function of the perceived exclusivity or fame of the institution.
There has been and continues to be considerable debate about how rankings should be interpreted, and whether they are accurate, useful and even appropriate. This is especially true for adult learners.
Two of the longest-standing and well-known rankings are the U.S. News and World Report (U.S. News) and the Princeton Review. The U.S. News rankings are comprehensive and use scores and sub-scores across sixteen defined “key measures of quality.” These measures have different weights and are based on peer college administrator and faculty surveys. The U.S. News rating system is geared to assist traditional students, as their data include high school counselor ratings, high school class standing, and SAT or ACT scores. Faculty compensation, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, average class size, first year retention rate, six-year graduation rate and average alumni giving amounts also play a part of their rankings. The Princeton Review surveys current students themselves on factors that appeal to what traditional students perceive as important in college: extracurricular activities, politics, quality of life, social scene, town life, demographics and academics/administration.
With the increase in non-traditional students, however, other groups have developed their own rankings, many of which include topics of more importance to that specific population.
Forbes and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity use a combination of twelve factors to expressly determine what students are truly getting out of college in terms of return on their investment. They collect data on items such as first-year retention rates, salary upon graduation, average loan debt, loan defaults, four-year graduation rates, and percentage of students going on to advanced degrees. Business Insider asks current professionals which college they believe best prepares its students for success. Money magazine ranks colleges based on twenty-one factors in areas of educational quality, affordability, and alumni earnings. The Daily Beast provides a “Guide to Best Colleges” based on three top factors of academics, future earnings, and affordability.
Organizations that publish rankings should tap into areas most vital for adult learners who are choosing a college. Non-traditional students are seeking colleges with the following characteristics: affordability, convenience, the availability of job-related academic programs, veterans services, credit for prior or competency-based learning, career planning services and minimal time to degree. As these students seek an educational home, rankings that provide objective, measurable and accurate information about these qualities will be most valuable. Adult learners want an institution where they have the highest likelihood of earning a degree at a low cost and which prepares them adequately for the greatest income and success in their chosen field. A college ranking scheme that truthfully addresses these specific items would be priceless, but the decision should not end there.
In a search for a suitable educational institution, prospective adult students who make a selection based only on rankings will be sorely disappointed. Of course, they can consult rankings as a small part of the whole investigation process, but they cannot rely solely on them as the definitive answer in their college search methodology. At best, rankings should be used as talking points for seeking out more clarity on issues that are most important to them, like how an institution’s “good academic reputation” ranking is determined and what impact it has on the academic degree program they want to pursue.
When hunting for a college, a prospective student is understandably overwhelmed by the volume of information available on the internet—it is human nature to want it boiled down to a simple “top ten” list. However, in order for students to find a good fit, they need to accept the fact that adequate time and effort must be expended to choose the right college. It is incredibly personal, individual and subjective, and the college chosen should fit all of a student’s needs. Prospective students must visit the campus, quiz the faculty and staff, talk to current students and alumni, and pore over the college website. College choice has far-reaching consequences and not making a wise selection initially could result in a transfer to another institution later, potentially adding time, cost and more obstacles to the pursuit of a degree.
Author Perspective: Administrator