Since 1983 US News and World Report has published an annual rankings of colleges and universities. These rankings became all the rage that soon the report outgrew the magazine and became a separate annual reference called Best Colleges.  Even though the magazine is now defunct and no longer exists in print, the rankings live on and have taken on a life of their own. American media devotes considerable attention to the annual publication and families with children about to embark on the college admissions process turn to these reports and rankings as a way to guide them through the process. Afterall, rankings guide consumers when it comes to assessing washing machines, hospitals and even movies.  Why not use rankings when it comes to colleges?  The Report bases its formula on data collected in five categories: Retention and Graduation Rate, Faculty Resources, Student Selectivity, Financial Resources, Alumni Giving, and Graduation Rate Performance. Unfortunately, the rankings cannot always be trusted, as some critics believe that the rankings are fundamentally flawed.  Even Gehrard Casper, former president of Stanford University, has gone on record as stating that the rankings are “utterly misleading” and that is coming from a school that is consistently one of the top ranked universities in the country.

Here are some concerns with the rankings:

  1. Colleges directly or indirectly manipulate the factors in the formula to raise their standings.
  2. Colleges are under pressure to rank as high as they can, so they try to look better in ways that actually do not impact the educational quality but will boost the rankings.
  3. Unlike a washing machine, there is no formula to assess how a student may fare at a certain college.  One cannot rely on a college’s reputation or ranking when it comes to looking for the right fit. That can only come with investing the time and effort to look at schools through the lens of each individual student.
  4. Because selectivity plays such an important role in the admissions process, schools are doing all they can to appear selective.  The glossy brochures and catalogues that begin to flood the homes of many juniors and seniors are the school’s way to reach out to prospective applicants. In addition, admission counselors travel the country encouraging students to apply because the more applicants the better! In the end, the institution can then boast a higher selectivity rate which will then boost their rankings.  A Former Duke University admissions officer is quoted (in the book Admission Matters) as saying, “I travel around the country whipping kids into a frenzy so they will apply. Then come April, we reject most of them.”

My advice is to spend more time focused on what will be the right fit for each student. While it may be easier to look at a list of schools and their rankings, I counsel students to explore the academic, extracurricular, social, and geographical factors to determine whether the prospective student will be happy and successful.