Trouble with College Rankings

Today, we explore the question of the best when it comes to the college rankings and more specifically, the undergraduate college experience. 

Most students and parents begin with the US News and World Reports, "Best Colleges" ranking system. Within that system, parents and students find various categories, which have been tweaked and refined over decades to come up with a score for colleges and universities. 

Then, there are sub-categories focused on specific areas of the ranking. For instance, high school counselor rankings, Veteran-friendly schools. best schools for innovating, the schools that provide the best value, and so on.

Malcolm Gladwell, the famed author, offered a fairly harsh criticism of the US News rankings a few years ago in an article for The New Yorker, The Order of Things. In the piece, he argues - 

"We (US News) also weigh the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields (15 percent), the student-faculty ratio (5 percent), and the proportion of faculty who are full time (5 percent). This is a puzzling list. Do professors who get paid more money really take their teaching roles more seriously? And why does it matter whether a professor has the highest degree in his or her field? Salaries and degree attainment are known to be predictors of research productivity. But studies show that being oriented toward research has very little to do with being good at teaching. Almost none of the U.S. News variables, in fact, seem to be particularly effective proxies for engagement."

If you assume that these areas, which represent a healthy portion of the rankings, are not troubling enough, then look at "reputation," which is the single biggest factor in the rankings. As Gladwell writes, 

"Some years ago, a former chief justice of the Michigan supreme court, Thomas Brennan, sent a questionnaire to a hundred or so of his fellow-lawyers, asking them to rank a list of ten law schools in order of quality. “They included a good sample of the big names. Harvard. Yale. University of Michigan. And some lesser-known schools. John Marshall. Thomas Cooley,” Brennan wrote. “As I recall, they ranked Penn State’s law school right about in the middle of the pack. Maybe fifth among the ten schools listed. Of course, Penn State doesn’t have a law school.”

US News uses a similarly flawed approach in asking individuals (e.g. high school counselors) to provide a "reputation" ranking of schools. While high school counselors may know something about a few schools, especially, some larger state schools in their local area, or the specific school(s) they have attended. Realistically, is a high school counselor qualified to rank USC above UCLA, or Haverford College over Pomona College? It is a fool's errand, yet this is the biggest component of the rankings for US News. 

Ultimately, the US News system is the system that pervades our college cultural landscape. As the dominant player,  US News makes the rules.

So, why is everyone so preoccupied with the US News rankings. The short answer, as Gladwell, argues, is that colleges and universities that do well in the rankings prop up the system and nearly every major college and university in the country caters to the rankings.


Why is this important?  First, millions of students and parents make life decisions based in some part (often, it is a major factor) to this information. 

What can you do? Understand the flaws and limitations of rankings, then explore the school you plan to attend. VIsit a class. Talk with professors and students. Learn more about how professors support students. Some high ranking schools may show little regard for the undergraduate student, while some lower ranked or unranked school may be the ideal place.

If you thrive on a one-on-one connection with teachers, and you visit a campus with a lecture hall of 500 students for English 101. Is that your best college?

If you are conservative, and you go to Berkeley, how comfortable will you be in classes with students and professors who have nothing in common with you? Is that your best college?

What if you grew up in Los Angeles, and you find the ideal school in the middle of nowhere, where there is snow on the ground six months, and every single student looks and acts about the same? Is that your best college?

At Oak Valley College, we want you to find the best college for you. The question is pretty easy to answer, but be careful in letting any single source tell you the answer. Research and discover your best college.