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College Rankings Exposed

Have you ever wondered why certain colleges are revered as “top-ranked schools” year after year? One ranking organization - The US News & World Report – is considered the leading authority on college rankings, numbers that hold sway over university administrators and anxious parents alike. One would imagine that these rankings stress factors such as post-graduation employment and/or average salary of graduates. Surprisingly, neither of these important measures of a student’s investment in a college education are considered at all by ranking

organizations. So what do they consider? .

22.5%, or nearly one quarter of the Rank is based on “Undergraduate Academic Reputation.” While this sounds like an important consideration in rankings, in truth two-thirds of this Reputation Rank is based on a “Peer Assessment Survey” conducted by surveying presidents, provosts and deans at academic institutions. The remaining one-third of the Reputation Rank is determined by the opinions of high school guidance counselors, the majority of whom have little to no direct experience with these universities. This means that nearly one-quarter of the entire Ranking is based on arbitrary opinions of university faculty and high school guidance counselors. I was shocked to learn how unscientific this analysis is, especially considering the countless students making decisions about which schools to apply to and attend based on these rankings.

The next 22.5% of the Rank is based on graduation and retention rates:  average graduation rates are 80% of this, and first year students who returned to the same college the following fall are 20%. I believe that his is a very valid part of the ranking.  Students transferring or quitting is expensive and does not bode well for the quality of the undergraduate program. If you are doing the math we have now quantified 45% of the Ranking. So what makes up the next 55%? You may not like it.

The next 20% of the ranking is called Faculty Resources, which is comprised of faculty compensation (7%), full time faculty (with PhD) (4%), class size (8%) and student/faculty ratio (1%). Another section is called Student Selectivity, which correlates to low acceptance rates and students with high standardized test scores/GPA and makes up only 12.5% total. I was very surprised that faculty compensation was nearly the same percentage as standardized test scores. While a well compensated and qualified faculty is important, one would assume that a class of well qualified students is equally important in this sort of rankings system.

So, with 77.5% of the Rank quantified, I am still waiting for anything related to post-graduation employment.  However, there are only three more factors added into the total Rank, and none of them relate to employment or other graduate outcomes. 10% is financial resources per student, or how much the university spends per student on various services. 7.5% is graduation rate performance – i.e. how well the university’s actual graduation rate compares with its predicted rate. This factor is nearly identical to the average graduation rate factor mentioned before – it does not seem necessary to for it to be its own factor, and could easily be folded into the total graduation rate factor. This means adjusted graduation factors comprise 25.5% of the total Rank. While graduation rate is important, it should be the baseline for any university worth its salt and not the single most important factor when ranking top 100 universities. The final 5% is alumni giving rate, or how many alumni donate to the university per year. This factor may be slightly correlated to graduate success, but wealthy alumni who donate large amounts of money have little correlation to current graduates struggling to find employment in today’s market. These rankings, in other words, have little to do with the eventual success of your college student and much to do with a predetermined set of benchmarks that have been established for years among a group of education administrators.

Parents should keep in mind that the US News & World Report college rankings privilege many factors that have nothing to do with your student and his or her post-graduation employment and salary opportunities. Stay tuned for next month’s article which will explain The Right Way to Rank Your Student’s College Choices.  

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