Are College Rankings Ever Useful?

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Are college rankings ever useful?

Students, parents, experts, columnists, and humble bloggers have been saying it for a while now:  college rankings are dangerous. They encourage colleges to take questionable actions to juke their stats; they make already-stressed high school students even more competitive and anxious; and they don’t even really mean very much.
In this weekend’s New York Times, Joe Nocera makes those familiar points, and reminds us that colleges are learning how to cheat the rankings game as well. Not only that, but rankings contribute to the skyrocketing cost of tuition. After college students graduate with a mountain of debt, they may well feel as though that top-25 ranking doesn’t seem so valuable in retrospect.

And because he believes that rankings stress students out, inflate minor differences between schools, and increase the debt burdens on families, Joe Nocera advocates… a different kind of ranking system. He touts the list compiled by the Washington Monthly, which, it should be said, is quite different from the dominant U.S. News list. In place of yield and reputation rankings, the Monthly’s list accounts for social mobility (which includes financial aid and reasonably priced tuition), community service (the number of students who enlist with the Peace Corps or ROTC), and research expenditures. In the Monthly’s rankings, the top two national universities are UC-San Diego and Texas A&M:  “All they do is graduate a higher percentage of students than you would expect given their populations — at a reasonable price,” Nocera says.

But is a new ranking system really what we need? Is the Monthly’s list really more honest or helpful, as Nocera claims, or is it just another way to clamor for attention in a rankings-obsessed world? (Look at us! Look at us! We think Texas A&M is better than Harvard!) Thanks to the internet, students and parents have access to a wealth of information about colleges; they have a far greater chance of finding the best fit for a student who loves college radio, or who wants a school with a great ethnomusicology department. Rankings once helped us figure out what was out there — but they’ve served that purpose. Now they just provide crude, attention-grabbing numbers that don’t really say much about a school, or about how a student might fare there. Instead of different rankings (as Nocera advocates), maybe what we really need is to get out of the ranking mentality once and for all.

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