College Rankings: Everybody is an Expert
Last night I thought it would be a rather clever time for me to write my Monday blog about college rankings. Today I woke up and everybody is writing their Monday blog about college rankings! My Twitter feed is overwhelmed with opinions on the topic and all the major newspapers have an angle on the matter this morning. I briefly considered focusing on a different topic, but I have something to say on this topic so I will jump into the sea of voices…
Two weeks ago at a Road Show event I received a question about our ranking in a minor publication as one of the top 50 “most stressful” colleges. I had seen the ranking prior to the question, but had given it little credence because it seemed ridiculous. However, the conversation that evening prompted me to investigate the methodology behind this unusual ranking. Did the publication interview students? Was there an evaluation on the use of psychological services on campus? How do you know a stressful environment exists?
The publications added up five criteria and equated those measures to stress: cost, competitiveness, acceptance rate, graduate school of Engineering, and crime on campus. Odd! First, they equate raw tuition data with stress without any consideration for financial aid. Then, they define competitiveness as the college’s ranking in US News & World Report. Sticker price and US News ranking alone total 70 percent of the “most stressful” ranking; then they add in 10 percent weight for the acceptance rate reported to US News. On top of that they weight a highly ranked Graduate School of Engineering (defined by US News) at 10 percent. Finally, they consider crime statistics on campus, employing more shoddy methodology. With all factors considered, 55 percent of the “most stressful” ranking correlates with a ranking in US News and World Report. It’s no surprise the lists are extraordinarily similar. The other 45 percent derives from some very bad math.
US News itself uses interesting mathematics to arrive at their “Best Colleges” list. The most controversial piece of the puzzle is the Academic Reputation category which accounts for nearly a quarter of a national university’s ranking. Their website says they give “significant weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence”. Last week several leaders in my office noted how ridiculous it is for us to evaluate the quality of a place like the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. The Academic Reputation category allows for a regurgitation of commonly held beliefs.
Methodology is incredibly important. I’m not saying that rankings are evil, but you should consider how the criterion of each ranking aligns with your values. For example, the Washington Monthly recently ranked colleges on social mobility and considered factors such as the number of students receiving Pell grants and the number of college graduates entering the Peace Corps. If service similar to the Peace Corps is a top value of yours, this list may actually be a good place to start your college search. Similarly, if prestige is a value of yours, US News isn’t a bad list. It’s all about reflecting on your values and making sure you understand what each ranking system values.
Vanderbilt makes many lists: 17th Best National University, 16th Best College Value, America’s Friendliest City, America’s Coolest City, Best Cities for African Americans… and the list goes on. Never accept these singular votes of confidence as fact. Investigate on your own. Ask questions. Ultimately, always trust your gut.
There, I’ve contributed to the deluge of ranking conversation today. Feel free to comment below!