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College Rankings With a Grain of Salt

Many students and parents start their college research with rankings, but here’s a caveat emptor or three.

Every year a number of books, magazines and websites “rank” colleges and universities. U.S. News & World Report is probably the most famous. But Forbes, Fiske, Kiplingers, The Princeton Review, and Consumers Digest all publish their own formulas and opinions.

Many students and parents start their college research with these rankings. That’s all well and good. You’ve got to start somewhere. But here’s a caveat emptor or three:

  • Most rankings are based on information provided by the schools themselves. No CPAs are verifying the data. And as recent news stories have reported, some colleges (how can we say this nicely?) stretch the truth.
  • Much of the criteria — acceptance rate, retention rate, average SAT scores, etc. — reveals little about the strengths of particular academic programs, what the social atmosphere of the school is like or what facilities are available. A university is much more than its statistical profile.
  • Some heavily weighted items are subjective. For example, how do you measure “reputation?”

Colleges and universities have been known to game the system. To wit, consider a university that stops requiring SAT scores as part of its admission requirements. Why might they do that? Because if SAT scores aren’t required, the only students who do submit scores tend to have higher scores. Voila, the average SAT score reported by the university goes up. And their ranking goes up.

Another example: One common factor in ranking methodology is a school’s “yield” — the number of students who ultimately enroll versus the number of students accepted. How do you increase your yield number? Simple. Accept more early decision students because you know ipso facto that they will enroll.

What’s the biggest trend in admissions the last few years? Accepting a higher percentage of early decision applicants. Hmmm… coincidence? You decide.

The bottom line on all this is that no ranking system, no matter how perfect, is going to be able to tell you what college or university is best for your child. It’s not the rank of the school that counts; it’s what you do when you get there that matters.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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