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The Problem With College Rankings

U.S. News and World Report has dominated the field of college rankings for decades. Initially a weekly news magazine, U.S. News ceased distribution of its print magazine in 2010 and now is an online-only publisher with the exception of their annual rankings publications, including the Best Colleges Edition. The 2017 edition is scheduled for release in September.

Although criticized by some for arbitrariness, U.S. News is the most popular rankings resource for college-bound students. Some colleges and universities even modify their admissions processes in subtle ways intended to raise their U.S. News rankings. There is nothing sinister about this. Colleges compete with one another for the best students, so all’s fair in love, war, and, for the most part, college admissions.

Rankings have their place among resources that students use to evaluate colleges. In addition to U.S. News, there are other reputable organizations that rank colleges annually. Among these are Money Magazine, Kiplinger’s, Forbes, Princeton Review, and Washington Monthly. These are objective resources that weigh the same available data but generate rankings that vary according to the distinct methodologies each has developed.

Although rankings can provide handy references to begin your college search, IvySelect, as a college admissions consultancy for those aspiring to attend elite institutions, strongly advises against targeting colleges based solely on rankings.

As an example, Money Magazine has recently released its rankings for 2017.  Money’s stated goal is to provide a uniquely practical analysis of 706 of the nation’s best colleges. Toward this end, 24 data elements are evaluated across three categories. Money’s focus is on the relationship among educational quality, the cost of an undergraduate degree, and the earnings of alumni. These three categories are each worth one-third of the final score. They process the data elements through their proprietary algorithm to produce a single score using the weights assigned below. Then they rank the final scores.

I. Quality of Education

  1. Six-year graduation rate (35%).
  2. Peer quality (15%) according to test scores and yield rate.
  3. Instructor quality (15%) measured by the student-to-faculty ratio.
  4. Value-added graduation rate (35%).

II. Affordability

  1. Net price of a bachelor’s degree (35%).
  2. Student debt at graduation (20%).
  3. Student loan default risk (15%).
  4. Value-added student loan repayment performance (15%).
  5. Affordability for low-income students (15%).

III. Outcomes

  1. Alumni earnings at years 1 and 5 (15%).
  2. Alumni earnings adjusted by majors (15%).
  3. College Scorecard 10-year earnings (10%).
  4. Brookings Institution analysis of the market value of alumni skills (10%).
  5. Comparative value earnings (15%).
  6. Career services available to students (15%).
  7. Job satisfaction of alumni based on answers to survey questions (20%).

To illustrate the differences between the results produced by the ranking resources, we’ve compared the top ten rankings of Money Magazine to the U.S. News rankings from last September. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the rankings based on Money’s methodology differ substantially from those of U.S. News. This variance is due to Money’s focus on value and affordability in contrast to U.S. News’s focus on academic excellence and degree of exclusivity. The characteristics stressed by U.S. News account for preponderance of Ivy League schools in their university rankings.

Tables A and B below compare the top ten universities and top ten liberal arts colleges in the rankings of Money Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.

Table A: Comparison of the Top Ten Universities

Money Magazine U.S. News & World Report
Rank University Rank University
1 Princeton 1 Princeton
2 Michigan 2 Harvard
3 Harvard 3 Yale
4 Rice 4 Columbia
5 Berkeley 5 Stanford
6 Brigham Young 6 Chicago
7 Virginia 7 MIT
8 Stanford 8 Duke
9 MIT 9 Penn
10 Yale 10 CalTech Pasadena

Table B: Comparison of the Top Ten Liberal Arts Colleges

Money Magazine U.S. News & World Report
Rank College Rank College
1 Amherst 1 Williams
2 Pomona 2 Amherst
3 St. Johns 3 Swarthmore
4 Earlham 4 Bowdoin
5 Washington and Lee 5 Middlebury
6 Wellesley 6 Pomona
7 Hamilton 7 Wellesley
8 Virginia Military Institute 8 Carlton
9 Bowdoin 9 Claremont McKenna
10 Davidson 10 Davidson

The methodologies of all six college ranking resources mentioned in this post emphasize different characteristics in their computations. They each generate rankings as much in variance with each other as the two compared above. Although U.S. News is the most popular, each of these reputable sources can and does stake a claim to being the most valid and useful to students.

How can you cut your way through this thicket of conflicting rankings to even begin your search for the right colleges for you?

Answer—hire IvySelect!

At the start of our engagement, your IvySelect college admissions consultant will devote a substantial amount of time with you to develop a thorough understanding of your educational and career goals, academic strengths and weaknesses, interests, talents, and preferences. With this information, we work with you to develop a comprehensive admissions strategy that is uniquely yours.

Among the first steps in your strategy is to build a list of 12 or 13 schools to which you will apply. Based on our first-hand knowledge of Ivy League and other elite schools, we guide you in identifying those top-tier institutions that suit you best. We take the pain out of your college selection process. You’ll be confident that all of your targeted colleges are great matches for you no matter where they may be ranked.

One response to “The Problem With College Rankings”

  1. Stan Rabinowitz says:

    This advice was very helpful. You caught me just as I was waiting for the annual US News college edition.