What’s In A Ranking?

What’s In A Ranking?

As a prelude to a recent podcast on college rankings as a part of the Revisionist History series, Malcolm Gladwell asks: “How is it that a promotional gimmick from the 1980s turned into a fetish object for American higher education? How do these rankings work? And why does everyone take them so seriously?”

These are great questions and ones that most families likely cannot answer. While many families may see rankings as a clear indication of value, the average well-informed college counselor will caution families to take US News and World Report rankings with a grain of salt. The internal metrics of how these rankings are calculated are not widely known and in reality, do not necessarily reflect the priorities of individual families and students. The little known history that Gladwell illuminates in his podcast shows that rankings were originally created to elicit more readership for a publication (which has now virtually disappeared) to put it simply, but the intensity of the importance of these rankings skyrocketed and continues to persist. 

At first glance, one will notice that the top colleges on this list are some of the most selective colleges in the country and it should be noted that selectivity is a variable that is used to calculate the score used to determine rank. Most universities comply with the annual request for data that is used to calculate this score. (Famously, Reed College opted to discontinue its compliance). Few families choose to dig deeper into the rankings to better understand what they really mean, what variables are included in the calculation, nor the weight applied to each variable although US News and World Report does provide information on their methodology. Even still, variables like “reputation” would make it difficult to exclude bias and variables such as “standardized test scores” ignore the proven statistical data that shows the myriad of problematic components of both the SAT or ACT for a variety of student groups. 

So should families consider these rankings and if so, how can they do so effectively? One of the most important elements of the college search process is for students and families to identify their own values and priorities. The success of a student is greatly enhanced by their ability to find an environment that supports their needs, complements their goals, and provides healthy challenges for personal and academic growth. These items should always lead their hunt for the right schools to consider. A top ranking from an outside organization may very well miss one or more of the most important aspects of a student’s future experience. It’s important to note that rankings do not include things like on-campus resources and services for current students, commitment to equity, access and inclusion, or even wellness. These are among many items families must investigate for themselves, ideally with support from a counselor, in order to ensure that their students will be put in a position to thrive on their future college campus. 

It’s easy to get caught up with brand names and the top 20 list, but not every great school is great for every student! Keep in mind that there are far more colleges and universities in the US than most people have heard of, many of which offer an excellent education and college experience. The idea that a brand name will translate to better jobs or graduate school prospects after college only works if a student is able to grow and achieve in that environment – and of course, if they can get in! Make sure selectivity isn’t the top priority on your list. With the rising price tag of college education, it’s more important than ever to make sure students are able to get their money’s worth both on campus and after graduation, but that doesn’t always look like a Harvard or Stanford nor does it need to. A good counselor will always guide you through how to find the right information based on a student’s individual needs and interests so that every school on the final list of options is a good choice. Ask questions and do your research to empower your student to create their own rankings based on the metrics that make the most sense for them.

1 Comment


Bene valete — Будьте здоровы.

February 22, 2024 at 3:32 pm

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