What's Wrong with the U.S. News Best College Listings?

Barry Lenson

U.S. News & World Report’s 2011 Best CollegesThe U.S. News & World Report’s 2011 Best Colleges issue – all 296 pages of it – just landed on my desk with a thud. As in years past, it claims to identify the best colleges in America. And there’s not much doubt that across America, thousands of parents, grandparents are rushing out to pay $9.95 for this issue so they will have a way to guide young students to one of America’s best schools.

To give credit to the editors at U.S. News, a lot has been done to improve the way the college rankings are compiled and organized this year. The categories have been divided up in new ways. For instance, colleges that grant postgraduate degrees are no longer ranked in the same list as schools that offer only undergraduate programs. More schools are included in the rankings this year. And for the first time, high school guidance counselors helped to create a new “Undergraduate Academic Reputation Index.” That’s all good.

So, what’s wrong with the U.S. News college listings? We think that despite the efforts of the editors to present information in new ways, the issue still presents a distorted view of what college is all about, and exerts unrealistic pressure on students and their parents. Here are a few reasons:

The entire notion of a “best” college is flawed. Students (and their parents) should not be thinking about getting into the “best” college on any list. Instead, they should be looking for a college that represents the best fit for the student who is applying. Sure, Harvard (which is ranked #1 on the U.S. News list of “Best National Universities”) might be wonderful for certain students. But for many other students, Harvard is far from the “best” school. If a kid is a late bloomer who will only come into his or her own in a caring college environment, for example, he or she should be looking for a school that is less academically rigorous. (Some kids excel in high school, others later on.) If he or she is a budding environmental scientist, schools like Oberlin or Evergreen fit the bill a lot better. If he or she likes the great outdoors, how about Colorado College?  If he or she is not just a future engineer, but a technology entrepreneur, schools like Harvey Mudd or the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering could be better than MIT. In fairness, U.S. News created a lot of lists of colleges with excellent programs in business, engineering, performing arts. But a lot of students need deeper, more detailed information to find a college that is just right for them. This is where a good college counselor comes into the process, by helping to match a student to a school that fits. And “fit” isn’t found in statistics.

Some of the ranking criteria seem suspect. The colleges that accept the smallest percentage of applicants, for example, do better overall in the rankings than do colleges that admit a higher percentage of applicants. For example Yale (ranked #3 in Best National Universities list), accepts only 8% of applicants. The University of Virginia (ranked #25 on the same list), accepts 32%. Yet those figures are deceptive, because UVA gives preferential acceptance to Virginia residents, many of whom apply. And in terms of student life and the quality of instruction, how much do rejection rates really reveal anyway? Similarly, colleges with the highest rate of alumni giving do better in the rankings than do colleges where fewer alumni contribute. Sure, alumni giving is an indicator of an institution’s overall health, but how much does it affect the day-to-day life of students?

There are still many opportunities for colleges to “cook” data to rise higher in the rankings. As blogger Seth Godin has noted, some universities and colleges market themselves aggressively so they can attract large numbers of applicants whom they will later reject – all a ploy to lower their acceptance rates and rise higher in the U.S. News rankings. And other shenanigans have been alleged too:  Colleges that keep retired professors on the active list in order to improve the student/faculty ratio that U.S. News weighs, or colleges that keep students who depart after the first year on the active list in order to boost the U.S. News freshman retention statistic. Because colleges lust for high rankings in order to attract lots of applicants, the temptation to distort data runs very high.

So, should you run out to buy a copy of the U.S. News & World Report’s 2011 Best Colleges issue? Sure. There’s a ton of information in it – information on college borrowing, on college interviews, and lots more. Just don’t use this thick volume to beat students over the head, or to convince them that the colleges that top the listings are “best” for them. The biggest favor you can do is to share all the information you can find about colleges – and then allow your favorite student to find his or her own top school.

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