College Rankings: My Pet Peeve

As many of you know, I’m not a fan of college rankings. I think most rankings are lame and their methodology is creaky.

When a mom emailed me yesterday complaining about the rankings, I decided to use this as an opportunity to share one of my biggest pet peeves about the college rankings of U.S. News & World Report, which frankly are the only rankings that really matter to families.

Here’s the pet peeve:  the magazine’s rankings are a beauty contest.

Reputation has always been the biggest factor in US News & World Report’s college rankings. That’s a major reason why the schools that have a great reputation – deserved or not – monopolize the top spots.

Until this year, reputation has accounted for 25% of a college or university’s ranking.  How the magazine accesses reputation is what’s crazy.

How is San Diego State Doing on a Scale of 1 to 5?

Every year, the magazine sends out three surveys to each institution in a particular category, such as national universities or liberal arts colleges. Three administrators in the office of the president, admissions and provost are supposed to fill them out. The folks stuck with this chore are supposed to grade each of their peers on a 1-to-5 scale.

Any guess which schools get a heap of “5” scores?’

Beyond the automatic high scores of some schools and the crappy scores of others, what has always irked me is that universities and colleges are supposed to know what’s going on at their “peer” institutions.

You can’t tell me, for instance, that administrators at the University of Michigan can assess the academic quality of hundreds of its peers including Kansas State, University of Alabama, University of Chicago, Rutgers, MIT, Harvard and San Diego State.

Changing the College Ranking Reputation Scores

The magazine got a lot of flack for basing so much of its ranking on these dubious reputation assessments. I suppose that’s one reason why the magazine dropped the reputation rating down slightly to 22.5% of the total score in its latest rankings roll-out. The magazine also shrunk the opinions of the schools themselves to 15% and it added the opinions of high school counselors (7.5%).

Frankly, I don’t think high school counselors are in any better position to measure the reputation of individual schools across the country.   Many counselors know little about the schools outside their own state. In fact, they may know little about schools beyond their own state institutions – if that.

So, as always, be careful how you use college rankings.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.com and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

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