Perception Rules

I recently spent some time exploring the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings to get to the bottom of what it all means. Controversy is no stranger to these elusive rankings that many take as the final word in college prestige. In fact, all the “alternative” rankings are probably a result of people dissatisfied with U.S. News’ methodology, but why the dissatisfaction?

I’m going to break it down so we can all understand the strengths and limitations of these rankings I think most of us take seriously despite common misgivings. This is what you need to know*:

1. Schools are first categorized by type, in a logical and fair way. National universities offer Bachelor, Master and Ph.D degrees and focus on faculty research. National liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate education.

2. Schools are ranked on Academic Quality – this is where it gets tricky. As defined by U.S. News, academic quality encompasses peer assessment, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving and high school counselor ratings.

3. Perception of institutional quality has the most weight. Administrators at other institutions rate the schools and high school counselors also provide ratings.

4. Student retention is also important, as are faculty resources.

5. Student selectivity is a little less important than the aforementioned, but still relevant. What is this student selectivity? It’s applicants’ SAT scores, percentage of students ranked in the top decile of their high school classes and the specific college acceptance rates.

6. The three remaining factors – financial resources, graduation rate performance and alumni giving, together make up one quarter of the formula.

There are is one extremely important factor in their formula, student retention. High retention rates suggest a lot about the overall quality of an institution – it shows student satisfaction with the experience and presumably it demonstrates that college resources and support programs are effective and meeting the needs of its student body.

Beyond this, the value of the other factors as it relates to academic quality is debatable. Peer assessment of any sort is risky business, as it’s neither objective nor based on actual experience at an institution. Certainly there is value to hearing the opinions of well-respected leaders in academia, but should their opinions factor into something as influential as U.S. News rankings? Maybe.

The same is true for the assessments by counselors. Having worked directly with hundreds of public school counselors, I can say with very little reservation, it’s unlikely they can fairly assess many of our nation’s top, but lesser known schools. This is not because of any deficiency, but simply because most don’t have the time to research or money to visit schools like Kalamazoo College or Knox College, extraordinary institutions whose rankings don’t make them as desirable as other institutions, yet their programs and student testimonials are some of the best out there. Thus, how can high school counselors rank schools they don’t know? They can’t. I’m sure there is a balancing measure, but I’m not sure several “not applicable, I don’t know this school” votes balance out all the “we love this school” votes more well known schools undoubtedly receive. And, many public school counselors are asked to do so many things with so little time already – advise and write hundreds of recommendations for students they don’t know, deal with truancy and registrar issues and then to ask them to do one more thing they may or may not have the time and expertise to execute seems unfair to them.

It’s ironic actually, that perception even plays such a concrete role in the U.S. New rankings, as it’s people’s perceptions of schools that are often the road block to the best college matches and potentially fulfilling experiences. “My friend said this” or “My mom wants that” or “I heard that” or “I read in” are all perceptions we create, not based on our experiences, but based on the experiences of others. Isn’t is fascinating how quick we are to trust others’ opinions about the quality of colleges?

My conclusion? Well, unfortunately, it’s not particularly enlightening, other than to empower college-bound students (and parents) to create their own opinions, not perceptions, based on their own experiences. What’s important to you? If it’s studying a foreign language to eventually become an interpreter or an international ambassador, look at that college, Kalamazoo, I mentioned earlier. Don’t automatically set your sights on Columbia just because everyone says it’s a good match or you have a chance of being admitted. Consider all factors, even rankings (all of the rankings out there) and use them within reason, but don’t let them determine your destiny.

* You can check out U.S. News’ own breakdown here.

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