How important are college rankings when choosing a college?
Short Answer: It’s all smoke and mirrors. You gotta dig deeper to get to what’s real.
In my first days as an Assistant Director of Admissions at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I was responsible for collecting and calculating much of the data that was submitted to the federal government (via IPEDS) and the various rankings publications, such as U.S. News and World Report, Peterson’s, etc.
It was so very clear to all of us involved in this process of data collection and analysis how easily this information could be manipulated by an institution to improve its placement on the rankings lists. We were quite sure that other institutions were manipulating this data in this way, and it’s beginning to come out that in certain cases, this is exactly what has been happening. (Google “Iona College Data Falsified.”)
How might that work? Here ya go:
As an institution, in the data you submit to the rankings publications (and the federal government, via IPEDS) do you want your SAT scores to appear higher? Lop off the SAT scores of your typically underperforming groups – athletes, first-generation/low-income, legacy, etc. – and you present much higher median and average SAT scores. (That’s why admissions counselors snicker when you ask them “What’s your average SAT.” There’s no such thing as an average SAT. You want to be taken seriously by an admissions professional? Don’t ask that question.
Want to increase the appearance of selectivity in the rankings (the idea that the institution is harder to get into than others)? That’s simple: Make the application easy. Remove or reduce the essay component; accept the Common App; reduce or remove the application fee; send out pre-completed application forms to “top students” (don’t be flattered if you receive one of these); don’t require letters of recommendation; market to tons of inadmissible students, raise their hopes, then deny them. The latter is one of the tactics the Ivies use – that’s one of the ways they maintain their reputation as elite institutions. Actually, most institutions use some or all of these strategies.
When I was Dean of Admissions at one of the Vermont State Colleges, this conversation was held every year, driven by a panicky president: How can we increase the numbers of applications? (In fact, this conversation happens in almost every single admissions office in the world.) The president of the college wanted the application to be as simple as possible, with no letters of recommendation, no essay, no fee, in short, nothing to slow down the application from being submitted and reviewed, because the president wanted the numbers higher.
This is the type of manipulative behavior that drives rankings.
Here's a story that stems directly from that situation: We received a complaint one day from an applicant. This student had received a phone call from one of the counselors congratulating that student on being admitted, and the student (a very, very smart student) challenged that counselor by saying, “How can your college be any good if you received my application online yesterday and you are already calling me to tell me I have been accepted?” Bingo. The fact is that the college had several outstanding faculty members and students that deserved to be part of a process that was more conscientious than the president of the college was capable of.
Those are just a couple of examples. There are many others. Why this type of anxiety and manipulation?
The institution’s trustees and Board of Governors and alumni want their institution to be as high in the rankings as possible because the foundation can leverage that information to attract donations from alumni and corporations and because their Office of Admissions can use it in their marketing publications to set them apart from other institutions.
It’s a funny thing that happens: If an institution ranks high on a list, they suddenly think rankings are a great idea (while saying privately that they know it’s all bunk.) If they rank low on a list, they agree that the rankings are nonsense.
This is why so many colleges and universities have stopped submitting their information to the rankings publications, and why you see U.S. News and World Report fumbling around in the news trying to push their agenda and changing their research methodology. They are being challenged as to the validity of their data and the use of their data. U.S News (and other similar publications) makes a ton of money off of prospective students and their families, just like you. It’s a corporation. They are manipulating you to create anxiety and make money based on your fear of not being at the “best” college. They are in silent collusion with colleges and universities that buy into the rankings) because they rank high enough to be able to leverage that power), cheering you on when they overhear you at high school events bragging about the highly ranked institution to which you are applying. It’s a competition based on nothing meaningful.
So how do you get real, unadulterated data? The federal government via IPEDS – the College Navigator tool. But, oops! Even they don’t have it (again, Google Iona College Data Falsified.) Although they do try hard. To be honest, it’s only a handful of people in that office. How do I know? I’ve met them. Great people trying hard to be a great watchdog over institutions both massive and small whose inner workings and conversations they can’t see and hear.
So if you ask me, a family that talks about rankings in their college search is not doing their search right. Do your own homework, beginning with getting to the heart of needs and wants and hopes and dreams and realities. There are great colleges, faculty, and outcomes everywhere. You’re not going to find that information in a rankings guide.
Like I said, you gotta dig deeper to get to what’s real.