College Rankings, a questionable Beauty Contest

With over 3,ooo colleges and universities in the US, it is impossible not to check out a school’s ranking. Annual publications such as US News “Best Colleges ” and Princeton Review’s “The 377 Best Colleges” often become staples when college shopping. With tuition being sky-high, you want to do your research. However, different books mean different rankings. Who do you trust?


The vicious contest of rankings

Remember, the goal of the publishing industry is to get you to purchase their books. This is reason # 1 why you should interpret each college ranking with a grain of salt! If the rankings do not change each year, then there is no need to publish and sell a new book. So starts the vicious cycle of ranking colleges.

When a college is ranked in the top 100, it is deemed more desirable, which positively effects an increase in applications. The more applications a college receives, the lower their acceptance rate become, which helps their overall rankings! For example, a school may it receives 5,000 applications and it offers 1000 acceptances, thus the acceptance rate is 20%. The following year, the school sees a jump in applications to 10,000  (Maybe the basketball team won the big game or they now offer free applications.)  However, the school still can only offer 1000 letters of admission. The increase in applications is good for the college because now their  acceptance rate is 10%. By increasing the number of applications they receive, they increase their deemed attractiveness or desirability. Wow, the college is hot! It will move up in the rankings.

It’s Good to be King or Queen…

The higher a school moves in the rankings, the easier it is to fill seats, collect full pay tuition and increase the school’s endowment. These qualities assures a college a seat at the table of the Top, Best, Fabulous Colleges. Life is good. There are clear benefits of being highly ranked. What is a school to do?  How do they get to crack into the top-tier?

Each publication has its own measures of how it ranks the colleges, US News “Best Colleges” includes factors such as student selectivity, alumni giving, retention rate and peer assessment amongst others measures. Thus a college will work very hard to improve their rankings in these categories. Unfortunately, a few colleges, even very selective schools have been accused of skewing their statistics to demonstrate more favorable data than the competition.

Like a beauty pageant contestant will use all sorts of tricks to enhance her beauty, so might a college skew their own self reported statistics to boost their image. The rankings of colleges are not a definite science nor should it be. A top-tier school might be an absolute awful place to attend if it’s not the right fit for the student. Selecting a college is a very personal. Factors such as location (i.e., cities, mountains, rural) or culture  ( i.e., liberal, intense, athletics, religious)  are not typically measured in these rankings. If you go to school # 254 on the list and you love your classes, can afford the tuition and make great friends, wouldn’t you rank this perfect school #1?  After all, isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?