College rankings are next to useless–find your own data instead

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There are countless lists ranking colleges based on all kinds of criteria, but the two most-talked about lists in recent years are the long-standing U.S. News & World Report rankings (first published in 1983), the Forbes rankings (begun in 2008), and the Washington Monthly rankings (which appeared for the first time in 2006).

Problems with the rankings

While I’ve noted many parents of college-bound juniors and seniors (as well as parents of current college students looking to validate their tuition expenses) pay a good deal of attention to the U.S. News rankings, few faculty within higher ed take the rankings seriously as a way of evaluating the quality of an education. (Yes, universities still like to rank high on the list, as it’s a great marketing tool, albeit a deceptive one.)

For example, in 1996, the president of highly-ranked Stanford University wrote to the editor of U.S. News that he found the rankings a fairly useless exercise. “As the president of a university that is among the top-ranked universities,” he wrote, “I hope I have the standing to persuade you that much about these rankings—particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision—is utterly misleading.”  Ten years later, a group of liberal arts college presidents offered a similar critique.

It’s not just college presidents who disparage the rankings; each publication has a stake in downplaying the usefulness of the others’ lists. A couple years ago, James Marshall Crotty wrote at Forbes that the Washington Monthly rankings were insufficiently focused on conservative ideals; that list prioritizes instead the public service records of colleges’ alumni as well as colleges’ affordability.  And Forbes contributor George Leef discounts college rankings altogether, admitting that “students who attend a prestigious college do not necessarily get a better education than students who attend one that is far down in the rankings.” Forbes’s rankings, of course, embody the attitude that pricier is better; the average tuition of its top 50 colleges (excluding the military academies, which don’t charge tuition) is $57,571 per year.

Meanwhile, Washington Monthly claims its criteria—social mobility, research, and service—are the metrics to watch. I agree they’re important, especially when looked at alongside more “traditional” ranking factors.

So. . . What college information should you use?

I admit that I find the Washington Monthly rankings a useful starting point for most parents and students, particularly its “Best Bang for the Buck” list.  The list includes not only the net price of 350 colleges, but also each college’s graduation rate, percent of students receiving Pell grants, and alumni student loan default rates. (Those last are really important–it’s an indicator of alumni success, as monthly student loan repayments can be steep.)  The list is eclectic, but skewed toward coastal universities in its top 20.  Note that despite all the talk about higher ed being unaffordable to California residents, two of the top 10 schools are California State universites, Fullerton (at $3,489 per year) and Long Beach (at $5,699 per year).  Even liberal arts colleges make the list, with Amherst College at the very top, and well-regarded colleges like Williams, Grinnell, Barnard, Occidental, Gustavus Adolphus, College of the Atlantic, and Wheaton (IL) making the top 150.

I urge parents and students to look instead at the information colleges provide under the Common Data Set Initiative, a collaboration among U.S. News & World Report, Peterson’s, and the College Board. Instead of relying on rankings determined by someone else’s formulas, parents and students should decide what’s important to them and look directly at the data.  (Of course, I can help with this process, and it’s included in my college admissions consulting package.)  Some thoughtful participants in the College Confidential forums assembled a list of links to individual colleges’ Common Data Sets.

Further resources

Wikipedia has an overview of various organizations’ college rankings, as well as an article summarizing criticism of college rankings.

IPEDS offers a treasure trove of data, accessed either through its College Navigator or its primary portal, which offers access to all kinds of data analysis.

The American Federation of Teachers’ Higher Education Data Center also offers a ton of data.

Many states maintain their own higher ed data warehouses.  Add your state’s name to this Google search string, and see what emerges.

Image by GDS Infographics, and used under a Creative Commons license.