Rankled by college rankings

As some lists gain credibility, presidents still criticize the one-size-fits-all approach
By: | Issue: June, 2016
May 2, 2016

Almost everybody ranks colleges these days—old stalwarts like U.S. News & World Report, influential upstarts like Washington Monthly and click-baiting websites that measure everything from campus sustainability to most attractive students to coolest mascots.

William Destler, president of Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, even found his university named one of the “geekiest” in 2014. While these smaller lists can offer some comic pride, the broader, higher-profile rankings routinely favor elite colleges and universities—and this sells the higher education system short by comparing institutions that have widely varying missions, he says.

Destler sees no purpose, for instance, in measuring highly selective schools that support high-performing students with massive endowments against regional public universities that are expected to educate large numbers of underprepared, less affluent students.

“In the U.S., we’re blessed to have a wide variety of academic institutions, meeting every conceivable need, and these rankings downplay the value of that diversity,” Destler says. “Why should we say that Harvard is better than North Carolina A&T?”

“Criticism of college and university rankings” now has its own Wikipedia page. And leaders at historically black colleges and universities, women’s institutions and schools that serve large numbers of low-income and first generation students express some of the deepest frustrations over national rankings. Lists focused tightly on endowment levels, selectivity and SAT scores ignore the work these institutions do to promote economic mobility in the United States, says Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans.

And, Kimbrough adds, only affluent families will find relevance in lists that highlight those measurements. “I don’t think most rankings are geared toward diverse student bodies—they’re geared toward a certain clientele, which is not people of color or first-generation students,” he says.

Indeed, lists cause bad behavior when they overemphasize selectivity—which can drive colleges to encourage more students to apply just to reject them, says Jordan Matsudaira, an assistant professor at Cornell University who helped develop the federal College Scorecard.

On the other hand, rankings can provide students with valuable information about cost and outcomes.

“They help people avoid making pretty large mistakes by letting them screen out colleges where students graduate with high debt and low earnings,” Matsudaira says. “It’s all about intelligent design so rankings incentivize things we actually want institutions to devote resources to.”

As rankings continue to cover the spectrum from the serious to the silly, grappling with their impact on and off campus raises crucial questions of equity, the true meaning of student success and the diverse roles of higher ed in modern society.

Denigrated and validated

Rankings rarely help solve higher education’s big challenges—but they are a great way to sell magazines and books, points out Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in the nation’s capital.

“Rankings encourage consumers to play into the prestige game, which is very much fueled by money and social class,” she says. “My students should not be led to believe they are making a lesser choice. When you unfairly denigrate schools, you’re trashing students’ choices.”

Trinity, which doesn’t participate in the U.S. News rankings, enrolls a large number of women from the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Some of them are already mothers, and many struggle to feed their families and buy subway passes.

At the medical exam before enrollment, about 40 percent of incoming students are diagnosed with asthma and other medical conditions they didn’t know they had. Her students also sometimes face resistance from parents or other adults, who think they should work rather than attend college.

Elite institutions, on the other hand, often get credit for serving low-income students, despite enrolling a smaller number and the substantial resources those schools have to ensure success, McGuire says. These schools are also favored in rankings because their students rarely transfer, and they graduate in four or five years.

“Rankings imply all schools are equal, but there’s very little accommodation of mission in any of them,” she says. “There’s no ranking for how many single moms between 18 and 20 actually finished a college degree, and which schools helped them do it—or which schools get students from terribly deficient public school systems to master college writing by junior year so they can persist.”

Washington Monthly does not consider selectivity in its rankings, says Editor in Chief Paul Glastris, who formerly worked at U.S. News. The magazine launched its college report in 2005 and 2006 as an alternative to more established lists. The aim: Tell students how much tuition they will actually pay, by breaking down net price based on family income levels.

The magazine’s research also compares percentage of Pell Grants to graduation rates to determine if an institution is helping low-income students succeed.

“We look at this from the point of view of taxpayer rather than tuition payer,” Glastris says. “We want colleges and universities to be engineers of upward mobility, drivers of ideas and innovation, and schools of good citizenship.”

Repeated high rankings in Washington Monthly have provided some validation of mission at one large, public campus that previously had little interest in college ratings. Gary Edens, vice president for student affairs at The University of Texas at El Paso, says more credible lists acknowledge that today’s typical college student is no longer the affluent, well-prepared high-achiever from a top high school.

UTEP has been working to raise its profile as a research institution while also improving outcomes for underserved students. “Most colleges have had to choose between being an access institution and an excellence institution,” Edens says. “We’ve been trying to prove that isn’t necessary.”

Earnings aren’t everything

Several rankings now track salaries earned by an institution’s recent graduates—the higher the earnings, the higher the school rates. But Ralph Kuncl, president of University of Redlands in Southern California, says low earnings—particularly when measured immediately after graduation—don’t mean students are poorly educated or unhappy.

For instance, what about graduates who go into social work or education? Kuncl and Kimbrough, at Dillard, say more valid rankings will measure public service by reporting the percentage of a school’s students who join the Peace Corps, ROTC and other organizations.

“Every college in America says in its mission statement that they’re producing global citizens,” Kuncl says. “We ought to be measuring whether graduates vote, read books, and read, write or think critically. Rather than focus on what’s important or what it is we say our missions are, the rankings are counting up beans.”

Hamilton College in upstate New York—which has landed on lists ranking best food, best meditation spots and prettiest campus—uses its website to provide prospective students with a wealth of consumer information. A page maintained by its Office of Institutional Research includes financial statements, scholarship and outcome information, diversity data, and plenty of other statistics. But many rankings have limited value because they can cherry-pick data, says Hamilton President Joan Hinde Stewart. “What has disturbed us about rankings is the embedded notion that you can capture the complexity of higher education in a single number.”

Who’s paying attention?

Students searching for colleges give far more weight to what their peers on social media say about an institution than what the rankings say, says Pamela Fox, president of Virginia’s Mary Baldwin College—where Gladys the Fighting Squirrel often lands at the top of best mascot lists.

“College presidents are not opposed to sharing data or being transparent—we understand families need the broadest array of information about the outcomes our institutions produce,” Fox says. “But the rankings skew toward elite institutions, when it’s the many smaller, tuition-dependent institutions with smaller endowments that are offering access and affordability.”

So, just how important are these ranking systems?

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, points out that campus leaders “love it when their institutions are treated favorably, but they hate the rankings for the pressure they create.” In other words,
NACAC’s members “are engaged in a love-hate relationship with rankings,” he says.

While rankings provide useful raw information on academic programs and outcomes, many admissions officers believe the lists don’t have a big impact on students’ college searches.

“For domestic students, rankings are a sideshow, at best—you don’t hear of a counselor meeting with a student who says, ‘I have to go to this college because it’s ranked No. 1,’ ” Hawkins says. “Where you do see that is with international students, and we have to emphasize to them that none of the rankings in the U.S. constitute an official list.”

A subset of rankings to be particularly wary of are what Hawkins calls “lead generators” designed to gather information on prospective students that can be sold to colleges and universities. For instance, one of these lead generators might post a list ranking residence halls to capture students looking for specific amenities. Some of this activity has been driven by for-profit institutions, Hawkins says.

The biggest problem, however, may be the pressure created on an institution—mostly by trustees and alumni—to maintain its spot in the rankings. This can force over-reliance on data like SAT scores and lead to a drop in access.

“Institutions have long been on a quest for selectivity,” he says. “But rankings have codified that and given additional incentives that weren’t there before.”

Rankings provide more value when they emphasize outcomes like student success in the labor market, rather than measuring number of students admitted, says Matsudaira, of Cornell.

“Even then, there’s the concern that institutions will start to avoid enrolling lower-income students who might be less prepared or those who might be more interested in fields that don’t pay as well,” he adds. “Still, we want people to go into different programs with eyes wide open about the consequences of their financial decisions.”

Chris Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Maryland, says the clamor to rise in rankings creates “dangerous” conformity across higher education. Rankings also feed Americans’ ever-increasing desire for extreme wealth.

“Lists will become less important if the public becomes more concerned with well-rounded individuals who have interest in service to country and society, and living lives that belong to themselves rather than to a global enterprise,” he says. “The commodification of higher education has encouraged us to look at a single metaphor—whether it can be measured in dollars and cents.”

Who’s ranking the colleges?

This may not be all of them, but here’s an unranked and un-alphabetized list of the big (and not-so-big) organizations producing higher ed ratings systems:

Washington Monthly – “College Guide”: considers graduates who go into public service, among other factors

OEDb (Open Education Database) – Rates online programs

Federal College Scorecard (U.S. Department of Education)

Unigo (College search website) – Variety of rankings based on student surveys includes Wi-Fi, social networking, LGBT scenes and “Never-Ending Weekend”

Money/Essence – Best colleges for black students

Forbes – “America’s Top Colleges” – ranks return on investment

U.S. News & World Report – “Best Colleges

  • Ranks schools by category: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges, HBCUs
  • Also ranks undergraduates programs, such as engineering, business and teaching
  • One of its lists rates colleges based on input from high school guidance counselors.
  • Measures a range of other topics, including diversity, “A-Plus Schools for B Students,” participation in fraternities and sororities, and number of students over age 25.

New York Times – “Top Colleges Doing the Most for Low-Income Students”

LinkedIn – Rates colleges outcomes in specific careers

The Economist – Aims to rate an institution’s “economic value”

The Princeton Review – “380 Best Colleges”

  • Sells a more in-depth book version of its rankings
  • Also rates dorms, best/worst faculties, prettiest/ugliest campuses, libraries athletic facilities, happiest students, most beer and a range of other categories
  • Recently debuted another new product, “Colleges That Create Futures,” that assesses career centers and internship programs

Sierra Club – “America’s Greenest Colleges”

Money – “Best Value for Tuition”; also ranks community colleges on graduation and rates of transfer to four-year schools

Times Higher Education – ranks colleges and universities internationally.

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.