There is something compelling about rankings. I’ll wait through a commercial break to see Letterman’s Top Ten. College rankings can be fun; I always check to see where Rice University, my alma mater, ranks. Placing too much emphasis on rankings can be detrimental.

Before you use rankings to conclude that one school is better than another, make sure you know how rankings are calculated. You want a school that is right for your student. The rankings can’t make this type of personal evaluation.

Rankings have become big business in recent years. There have been publicized examples in which officials of one college have purposely submitted lower evaluations for their competitors in an attempt to improve their own reputations. Student selectivity has been the factor most schools feel they can quickly influence at little cost to the university and the fastest way to improve here is to make admissions harder (higher SAT scores and class rank.)

In the past, US News had calculated their rankings according to the following formula:

  • Peer assessment 25%
  • Graduation & retention rates 20%
  • Faculty resources 20%
  • Student selectivity 15%
  • Financial resources 10%
  • Alumni giving 5%
  • Graduation rate performance 5%

While I could point out weaknesses in each of these categories, I’ll limit myself to a few.

Graduation & retention: This number is based on freshman retention rate and six-year graduation rate. Obviously you want to attend a university where students are happy and successful.

  • Why do students leave a college after freshman year? Could there be an explanation that doesn’t reflect poorly on the university? (money, lack of maturity, job offers)
  • Is this a school were students are likely to attend for a year or two then transfer?
  • Is the six-year graduation rate a reflection of the university, the students, or both?

Student Selectivity:  50% is based on SATs of enrolling students and 40% is based on percentage of enrollees in the top 10% and 25% of their graduating classes. Acceptance rate is the final10%.

  • Do you believe higher SAT scores will mean the students are more informed and academically prepared?
  • Is a student with a 680-R, 670-M on the SAT significantly less prepared for college than the student with a 740-R, 780-M?
  • Is the person who graduates in the top 30% of a competitive high school less academically prepared than the person who graduated in the top 5% from a lax school?
  • If last year University X admitted 20% of its applicants (1000 out of 5000 who applied) and this year they increase their marketing and get 10,000 students to apply, but still accept only 1000 (or 10%), had the school’s academics improved?

Rankings can be fun to look at. The statistics are interesting to review and the publications put all the numbers in one place for easy review. Use the information as you research colleges. Just don’t believe that a higher ranking will make a particular school a better fit for you.