The Problem With College Rankings

October 29th, 2007 by Keith Clausen

US News and World Report has dominated the college and university rankings in the US for years. Eagerly awaited each year, school administrators with improving US News rankings earn bragging rights while those schools on a downward trend must react vigorously to determine what has gone wrong. Parents and students use the rankings to determine to which schools to apply. By all measures, rankings have become critically important to how a college or university is perceived, particularly the US News rankings.

Critics of the US News ranking system are widespread and nothing new. For a summary of common critiques, read this excerpt from The Presidents Letter (dated May 10, 2007), developed by Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy, and sent to college and university presidents in the United States in May 2007, concerning the U.S. News rankings:

“Among other reasons, we believe [...] rankings: imply a false precision and authority that is not warranted by the data they use; obscure important differences in educational mission in aligning institutions on a single scale; say nothing or very little about whether students are actually learning at particular colleges or universities; encourage wasteful spending and gamesmanship in institutions’ pursuing improved rankings; overlook the importance of a student in making education happen and overweight the importance of a university’s prestige in that process; and degrade for students the educational value of the college search process.”

Perhaps the simplest critique is that parents and students get overly focused on rankings during their college search, and ignore the most important thing: what college or university is the best “fit” for the student? With thousands of excellent colleges and universities in the United States, offering all kinds of programs and experiences, there are so many better ways to choose a school than whether it is in the top 20 in the latest US News rankings.

For international students in the US, finding the right fit in a US school is even more important. Since you will be far from home, largely on your own, and probably on a limited budget, setting up a life you will enjoy in a comfortable environment is critical. The key is to start your research early, and be clear and realistic about your educational goals and budget. To get you started in choosing a school in the US, visit the Study USA section of InternationalStudent.com. This will help you think through questions like, city vs. country, large public university vs. small private college, community college or four-year college, specialized school vs. liberal arts college, etc., and will put you on the track to finding the school that is the right fit for you.

In the next post, we’ll discuss an alternative rankings system proposed by Washington Monthly, a small, progressive DC-based magazine. Maybe you caught the editor on the Colbert Report last week? Check it out here.

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