Rankings Schmankings

by Dr. Dean Skarlis on February 7, 2013

The Washington Post reported today that within the past year, five selective colleges have admitted to falsifying the SAT data they reported to U.S. News and World Report for its annual college rankings guide.  This was stunning news to the college admissions community, especially since the schools, George Washington University, Bucknell University, Claremont McKenna College, Tulane University and Emory University, are selective and quite popular choices for many students.  I reference this regrettable situation not to point fingers at these colleges, although their behavior is reprehensible, but instead to help you understand why rankings are less than useful in a student’s college search.

While the U.S. News rankings are not inherently bad, they are flawed in several ways.  For example, part of a college’s score is its “academic reputation.”  The publication surveys college leaders for input on which schools have the best reputed academic programs.  Obviously, this is subjective data, and can be easily skewed.  Another criterion is faculty salaries.  I’m not sure exactly how this relates to student learning, but this is one of many factors that are not really related to how much a student learns.

But aside from the rankings themselves, there is a more important point to be made.   Think of the 3 most successful people you know.  Did they all go to Ivy League colleges?  Probably not, because less than a half percent of the population graduated from an Ivy League college.  I know dozens of highly successful individuals who attended community colleges or who didn’t attend college at all.  While anecdotal, the point is that if a particular college is a bad fit for a student, then he/she should not attend.  Families should forget the rankings, and ask:  Where will my child excel academically and socially?  Which colleges have a strong academic program in which the student is interested?  In fact, there are some excellent academic programs at colleges you’ve never heard of.  I would argue that a less selective and less well known college which is a better fit for a student is a much better choice than a highly selective school at which a student might not be happy – socially or academically.  Students who find such schools are more likely to be happy and excel which will lead to better grades, a better experience, and better jobs or graduate school options. 

One other critical point is worth noting.  While it’s nice for a student to be admitted to a highly selective college, they will likely have to pay full price.  Wouldn’t it be nice, on the other hand, to really be wanted by a school?  This means getting a good scholarship package and/or getting all of your financial need met.  This is when a school becomes a great fit socially, academically, and financially.  With the cost of college – approaching $60,000 per year at some highly selective schools – it makes the most sense to approach the college search in this manner.

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