College Rankings

College rankings may be used as tools to identify possible colleges, but be careful how you use them.  US News and World Report ranks liberal arts colleges and universities annually.  They also segment institutions to create a few interesting categories.

Forbes and Business Week have their own rankings as well.  In addition, there are various worldwide rankings available.  It is interesting to see where colleges fall in these lists but anxiety is created for both the college itself who wishes to be perceived as superior, and the prospective student who is figuring out where they should apply to college.  Everyone wants to be associated with an institution that is high on the list and thus be a “good college”.  What is a good college, and can a single number really tell us very much?  First of all the worth of a college will vary greatly based on student characteristics and goals.  It really is about fit and identifying colleges where a student will thrive.

Also, these rankings are only as good as the type of data used to create the lists.   US News and World Report inputs data focused on alumni donations and peer evaluations.  One has to wonder about the value of this kind of data when trying to evaluate colleges. When participants are subjectively adding data to the mix, it’s comparable to a beauty pageant where the contestants are also the judges.  Another example is average class size where a universities may enter different data based on graduate as well as undergraduate classes.   What is the real difference between a college ranked 25th and 50th?  Certainly location, course offerings, educational philosophy, and community environment are much more relevant to a student than its numerical ranking on a particular list.

Forbes attempts to add more output data in their rankings such as 4-year graduation rates.  Graduation rates are important given the cost of attending college.  However, Northeastern University has recently criticized the methodology since it was penalized for having a 5-year co-op program, one of it’s unique educational features, and arguably a program that reduces the cost of attendance and increases the potential to be employed at graduation for the student.  Should Northeastern be compared on this list with colleges that are 4-year institutions?  Forbes ranks liberal arts colleges and research universities together and one has to wonder how head-to-head comparisons can be made between these very different types of learning institutions.

Look at the rankings if you must, but when it comes down to creating your college list, be thoughtful about which institutions meet your individual requirements and where you will be happy.