Cashing In With Dubious College Rankings

Last week, The Princeton Review released its annual publication, The Best 368 Colleges.

Inevitably the book generates tremendous press coverage each year and lots of sales. I just checked the book’s rank on Amazon.com and it was the online book seller’s 400th most popular title. To put this number in perspective, Amazon.com sells well over 1 million different books.

This year readers will learn that the University of Florida is the No. 1 party school, the students attending Clemson University are happiest and undergraduates are least happy with their financial aid packages at such schools as New York University and Emerson College.

How valuable are these rankings? Actually, they are far more valuable to The Princeton Review, which is making money off its suspect rankings methodology. Is Florida the biggest party school or are Clemson students really happiest? No one could possibly know that including The Princeton Review. That reality, however, doesn’t matter because rankings–flawed or not–are what sell.

Frankly, there is nothing scientific about the way The Princeton Review evaluates schools. Here is the observations of a critic who posted his comments on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education the day the annual resource guide was released:

The Princeton Review’s methods of data collection are renown for being a joke but the consequences of such shoddy work are not funny. The shame of this report is that the PR gets any recognition for producing it.

Here’s another post from The Chronicle:

The Princeton Review is the worst of the “reviews.” They collect data at any institution every 3 years but present the data annually as if it is still relevant, without calling attention to how old it is. They do not share their data collecting methods with institutions so it is never clear who they talk with. Integrity is not their middle name.

In my book, The College Solution: A Guide to Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, I devote Chapter 15 to exploring why books like The Princeton Review’s The Best 368 Colleges should not be treated like a collegiate Bible. Economics explains one reason why evaluations of colleges are often superficial. Imagine spending enough time on a campus to be able to draw a realistic picture of a school’s strengths and weaknesses — right down to individual academic departments. Now multiply that amount of time by hundreds or thousands of schools. It would require a huge commitment of man hours — and money — to compile meaningful analysis of hundreds of schools in a guide that’s cranked out annually.

And guess what? That’s not happening.

While books like The Princeton Review’s The Best 368 Colleges and Fiske Guide to College, which I think is a better publication, can be used as a starting point, you shouldn’t rely heavily on these books to determine which schools you explore and which you snub.

Please visit my website at The College Solution.

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