College rankings

The U.S. News College Rankings and Your College Search

Every fall, we can count on the arrival of several things–pumpkin EVERYTHING, college football, and the U.S. News college rankings.

U.S. News & World Report released their annual rankings. The media frenzy has begun. Our local paper, The Columbus Dispatch, was quick to post a piece about central Ohio college rankings.

Some families place a lot of importance on these rankings in their college search. We get it. Being able to pare down a list of 2,000+ colleges into something more manageable is appealing.

However, if you are followers of At The Core, you know these rankings are problematic.

What’s the problem with the rankings?

As critics point out, the ranking method values “wealth, reputation and exclusivity more than economic mobility” and what is best for your child. FairTest described them as a “garbage in, garbage out exercise”.

For example, one key element is the reputation survey sent to more than “4,000 college presidents, provosts and admission deans” asking them to rate the quality of their peer universities. This element counts for 20% of the formula. The president of Princeton has decided to not fill out the survey. As he points out, he felt utterly unqualified to judge a prominent Southern college he had never visited.

“The formula also factors in faculty resources, including salaries and class size (20 percent), and per-student spending (10 percent), all of which is influenced heavily by institutional wealth. SAT and ACT scores of incoming students, plus their high school class standing, count for 7 percent, and alumni giving rates count for 3 percent.”

In recent years, U.S. News has attempted to include student outcomes in their formula, but that piece is only 40% of the total. The other 60% is highly influenced by money and pure reputation.

This recent blog from Georgia Tech’s Admission Department summed it up nicely.

Columbia University made big news as an example of the problem with self-reported data.

They dropped from number 2 to number 18 because a Columbia math professor exposed serious problems with the numbers that his employer reported to U.S. News. Oddly, U.S. News does not check the data submitted to them. They “rely on schools to accurately report their data.”

As the professor pointed out, these rankings are troubling because “universities have to report data, but they know they have a strong interest in the data looking favorable, so that’s a conflict of interest.”

Why do we continue to use college rankings?

People are still tied up in prestige, labels/names, and “perceived quality” (a great Jeff Selingo phrase). The marketing message of a rankings list is perfectly teed up for the media to grab on to and run with. U.S. News is a media company, after all.

What can families do instead?

What we all want is for our kids to be in the program at the university that is right for OUR KID. The only way to get to that is by starting with the real criteria that define the experience OUR KID is seeking. During that phase of the process, there is no discussion of colleges.

This “what is right for ME” phase can be followed by some college searching using those criteria. At some point, adding in as one reference point regarding what ratings/rankings providers have to say is fine, but add it in with lots of other data collection.

Read books like Who Gets In and Why, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, and Colleges That Change Lives. Watch our College Research webinar with your student. Consider Guided Self Assessment to do the deep work getting at why the student is going to college and what personal characteristics are key to that thinking.

Yes, it’s work. But we know you are smart people who want the best for your kids. No one wants a child to select a college because of its name and “perceived quality” only to get there and realize that it’s not the right place for them.

So, what is the most VITAL part of a college search?

We use the word “vital” (from Latin vita meaning “life”) because it is the life, the personality, and the specific personal needs of YOUR child that should drive the entire college search process–not U.S. News.

This initial thinking and articulation of what’s going to be the best type of place and experience to serve your student during these very important college years will be your guide!

It’s easy to get caught up in the marketing materials that come in the mail, the emails urging your child to consider XYZ college, and yes, our “preconceived notions of quality” of the college names we’ve heard for years. But if you jump ahead to looking at colleges without knowing what you’re really and truly looking for, the process can and will get cloudy, confusing, murky, and off-track. We feel it is important to keep sight of what is truly of value in this process: your student.

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