Admissions

Check These College Ranking Options: Part 1

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If you're a follower of higher education news, then you probably heard that the U.S. News & World Report 2021 Best Colleges rankings came out last week. Many high school students and their families eagerly await this late-summer publication every year. They use it as a guide to see where their favored colleges stack up against others, according to the U.S. News editors' calculations. It is widely considered the most prestigious rankings resource.


There are other rankings, however, that can also offer insights into where colleges stand according to various criteria. Today I want to take a look at a set of rankings that you can use in addition to U.S. News. I'm referring to Forbes' America's Top Colleges. These rankings have pros and cons, as with U.S. News and others, but they can be helpful for your research, so keep them in mind while exploring possible candidate schools.

One of the better sources of rankings comparison is the article All the College Ranking Lists You Should Read by Justin Berkman. In addition to discussing the pros and cons of Forbes, he also addresses U.S. News and Niche rankings.

Not All Rankings Are Created Equal

I'm not a huge fan of college rankings. The reasons for my lack of enthusiasm include the fact that certain colleges have been known to play games with their schools' data in order to achieve a higher ranking, especially in U.S. News' eyes.

For example, thecollegesolution.com tells us in an article: "Schools that have acknowledged sending false figures to U.S. News in the past year include Claremont McKenna, George Washington University, Emory University, Bucknell University and the graduate program at Tulane School of Business." This may surprise (or irritate) you, but it is a fact.

The article goes on to show how numbers can be manipulated to improve a college's profile and, consequently, their ranking. Of course, this is simply a matter of blind trust by U.S. News since they have neither the time nor staff available to verify all the data supplied by the many colleges that appear in their rankings. Thus, with the term caveat emptor in mind, let's take a look at some pluses and minuses of the Forbes list.

First of all, Berkman gives us some of the overall benefits for using rankings:

  • you may find a school that matches what you're looking for in a college.
  • you can see statistics for different colleges like average class size, high school GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and cost.
  • these lists give you a rough idea of the reputations of different colleges.
  • these lists can give you an idea of what you need to do to make yourself competitive for admission to a specific college.

More importantly, he mentions something that has been one of my battle cries for decades: Avoid making your college decisions based on rankings! Here's why:

  • Some of the criteria these lists use to compile their rankings are highly subjective and are based on survey responses. "Quality of life" and "academics" can be major factors for rankings and both are often based on opinions from surveys. The primary problem with these survey results is that they don't seem to be representative; they suffer from voluntary response bias and nonresponse bias
  • Colleges are motivated and influenced by the rankings. Colleges understand that these rankings are popular and influential. They'll spend money on things the lists consider important or aggressively recruit students who have little chance of gaining admission just to raise their selectivity rating to increase their rank
  • And, as I have mentioned above, … perhaps most disturbingly, some schools cheat to improve their rankings. Colleges have lied (and probably do lie) when reporting their numbers to college ranking lists to get a better rank

Now, with all that as a prelude, here are some pros and cons of the Forbes college rankings. Berkman says that "The Forbes college rankings list is newer and less prestigious than the U.S. News list, but … is still very popular and … emphasizes student outcomes from colleges to determine its rankings. Rankings are heavily dependent on post-graduation success, freshman retention rates, and graduation rates …"

Pros:

  • "Student Satisfaction" is an important component of the rankings. The Forbes list may be more beneficial than the U.S. News list in determining the quality of life at different colleges. Because you'll probably be spending at least four years at the college you attend, you want to not only choose a school that will educate you well and prepare you for your future, but also you want to be happy during those years. You want to enjoy your living environment, your peers, and the time you spend outside of class.
  • By emphasizing postgraduate success, the Forbes list may give you a better indication of the impact of a specific college on attaining your future professional goals.

Plus, this is one of my main, ongoing concerns for college students:

  • … the emphasis on student debt in the Forbes rankings separates it from most of the other college ranking lists. By measuring the average federal student loan debt and the student loan default rate, the Forbes list may give you an idea of the affordability of a school, the generosity of a school's financial aid, and whether students are capable of paying back their loans after they graduate.

Cons:

  • Unlike U.S. News, Forbes does not separate colleges into categories … It's extremely difficult to effectively compare schools that vary tremendously in size, degree options, and research capabilities … how can you rank Penn State University, which has over 40,000 undergraduates and more than 160 majors against Wesleyan College, which has fewer than 700 undergraduate students and only 31 majors?
  • the Forbes list can favor schools that have wealthy student bodies … Students from affluent families are less likely to have to take out loans and are more likely to be able to pay back loans. Therefore, schools that have more wealthy students are likely to do well in the "student debt" component of the rankings.
  • The student satisfaction survey given to students is only a very small component of the rankings. Additionally, information from Rate My Professors is hardly a reliable source to determine how happy students are with their classes at a particular school ... Forbes rankings provide little information about what life is like on campus.
  • … Forbes has a very narrow definition of success. "Student Success" is based on the salary of alumni and whether students obtain prestigious positions and awards. Schools with pre-professional programs in potentially high-paying fields like accounting and business may get a bump in the rankings … colleges that have more alumni who go into less lucrative fields like teaching or non-profit work may score poorly in "Student Success." However, that is no indication that a college isn't good or that its alumni aren't successful.

If you're thinking that Forbes has too many cons in relation to its pros, take a look at what Berkman has to say about the U.S. News rankings. In fact, if we care to rank the three sets of rankings Berkman discusses, perhaps his most flattering review goes to Niche, which has far more pros than cons in comparison to U.S. News and Forbes.

The "Part 1" in my title sets the stage for a Part 2 discussion of the Niche rankings, which is another worthy supplement to U.S. News. Even beyond the three lists mentioned above, other specialized rankings exist, such as Money's, which I also discuss in Part 2.

Ranking lists have become even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. On-campus college visits have all but been replaced with virtual tours, which can hardly take the place of "trodding the sod," as I like to say.

Rankings can also add a touch — just a touch — of objectivity to offset the marketing deluge of a virtual visit, where colleges (obviously) don't show dirty dorm bathrooms and you can't smell the empty beer kegs behind frat houses. Rankings, then, might be your "port in the storm" of coronavirus.

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