Admissions

The College Rankings Effect

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I follow college football -- the Big 10 in particular -- since Penn State is my alma mater. I noticed that the preseason national football rankings came out the other day and PSU cracked the Top 10 on the Sporting News’ list at number 10. Yes!

As I continued to research what others thought about Penn State’s upcoming performance, I checked ESPN. On their rankings, PSU was number nine. Even better!


Inspired by this rising trend, I checked Athlon’s list. What? Number 11?! No! Dang it!

My point here is about rankings -- of any kind. Obviously, it depends on who is doing the ranking. It’s a completely subjective process that can be tinted with subtle prejudices.

Now, let’s turn to college rankings. Let me count the ways.

For those of you high schoolers who are shopping for candidate colleges, the ones you want to consider your applications, ask yourself, “How can I know if a college is right for me?” That question relates to college matching, one of the finer sciences you can explore.

There are a zillion “How to find the perfect college” articles out there. Do a search and see how many you can find. Then, after reading all the various methodologies recommended by the experts, allow yourself to be confused. However, since our topic today is rankings, let me address high schoolers who use them as the main criterion in their matching process.

Consider Subjectivity

I’ve always been someone who, when looking to acquire something, finds out what is “the best,” be it audio equipment, bicycles, cameras, baseball gloves, cars or computers, among other things. This allows me to set a standard by which I judge relative quality. The problem with this approach is that there are just too many lists and opinions to check. Thus, my buying decisions are usually made more subjectively than objectively.

There’s that word again: SubjectiveWhat I’m leading up to is the fact that some -- maybe more than we’ll ever know -- use rankings as a big part of their college candidate selection process. Some may even use rankings as the exclusive source of their process. That’s a perilous approach, in my view.

In trying to understand why a high schooler would default to using rankings for a college selection approach, I see the motivation contained in two simple words: brand names. Hey, I’m guilty, too. That’s why I have McIntosh audio equipment, Sony TVs, Canon cameras and so on. I checked the “best” lists and found the brands that had in most cases universally percolated to the top. What’s wrong with this picture, though?

What’s wrong is that making a decision based on others’ subjective opinions can be misleading -- for you. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time to do a proper “vetting,” as they say. We live in a trendy, drive-up-window, “now-and-wow” culture. We want our stuff now and we want to make others go “Wow!” so this leads us to those “best” lists.

It's Prime "List" Season

It’s now August, when many of those best college lists emerge. For example, just yesterday I got a press release touting The Princeton Review’s latest “best” rankings, which detail what’s best across the collegiate spectrum. Here’s an example:

"Most Accessible Professors"— United States Military Academy (N.Y.)

"Best College Dorms" — Washington University in St. Louis

"Best Campus Food" — University of Massachusetts Amherst

"Best Health Services" — University of Wisconsin — Madison

"Most Beautiful Campus" — Bucknell University (Pa.)

"Best Athletic Facilities" — The University of Alabama — Tuscaloosa

"Happiest Students" — College of William & Mary (Va.)

"Most Politically Active Students" — American University (Washington, D.C.)

"LGBTQ-Friendly" — Emerson College (Ma.)

"Party Schools" — University of Delaware

"Stone-Cold Sober Schools" — Brigham Young University (Utah)

"Students Pack the Stadiums" — Syracuse University (N.Y.)

"College City Gets High Marks" — Tulane University (La.)

"Their Students Love These Colleges" — Clemson University (S.C.)

Again, back to subjectivity. Let me highlight just one of the above superlatives: “Most Beautiful Campus.” Our son is a Princeton University graduate and my wife and I spent a considerable amount of time on campus at Princeton. I’ve been to Bucknell. In fact (stumbling down amnesia lane here), I spent a long weekend there playing in the Pennsylvania State Jaycees Tennis Championships a few (haha) years ago (finished runner-up, unfortunately).

There’s no doubt that Bucknell’s campus is lovely, but for my collegiate dollars, it can’t compete with Old Nassau. Princeton has way too much gloriously displayed history and modernity carefully manicured into what my wife and I refer to as “The Magic Kingdom.” But -- and this is a big, pointed but -- that’s our subjective opinion. I’m sure that those connected to schools like Swarthmore, Dickinson, Amherst, UCLA, and a thousand others who would defend their respective campuses’ beauty just as I have noted Princeton’s.

This is my point: Beware the effect of subjective college rankings. While the authors of college rankings are quick to disclose their methodology, subjectivity can lurk in the corners of even the most quantifiable rationale. Thus, you must keep that in mind if you are using rankings as a central element of your search.

Are You Hip to HYPSM?

Back to brand names. “The Ivy League” is the most prestigious brand name in the college world. Another, perhaps less well-known brand is “HYPSM.” This failed acronym stands for “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT” -- five brand names that are constantly at the top of annual rankings lists.

It’s easy to be blinded by top brands. I’m guilty of that. The danger in seeking only top-ranked brands is that you will no doubt miss considering less well-known brands (sometimes knowns as “best buys”) that don’t make the top ranks.

It’s kind of like grocery shopping. A case in point: Frosted Mini-Wheats. I love high-fiber cereals. I’m a big fan of oatmeal and shredded wheat. My wife shops at Walmart. One day she brought home a box of Walmart’s Great Value-brand “Frosted Shredded Wheat,” which is the Walmart version of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats. The Great Value version is 25 percent cheaper, on average, than Kellogg’s product. I can’t tell the difference. Thus, my cereal budget has taken a great (value) leap forward for savings.

The same goes for colleges. There are likely at least several “house brand,” so to speak, colleges among America’s several thousand that could meet your search criteria, but you may not ever know about them because they never appear in high-profile publications. For example, consider Amazing But Overlooked: 25 Colleges You Haven't Considered But Should. How about Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, or Denison University in Granville, Ohio? I rest my case.

There’s a sea of subjectivity when it comes to college rankings. If you have some time, check out all these. Of course the most prominent rankings include those of The Princeton Review and U.S. News. However, it’s possible to rank just about any aspect of college, as noted in this Washington Post article from 2015: College rankings that matter: Hottest students, most weed, ugliest campus. Here’s a sample:

There are rankings for the druggiest schools, the most fun colleges (Clemson), most expensive schools, weirdest college traditions. (A top pick is Oxford, where students walk backward around the quad drinking port “stabilizing the time-space continuum.” BBC explains this, sort of.)

The college with the hottest men, according to dating app Tinder, is Georgetown. Florida State gets the nod for hottest women.

Some illuminating lists don’t get updated, like the one that named Rutgers the hairiest college in the country a few years ago. That’s okay. The research presumably stands.

Applicants can gauge the most dangerous schools as defined by aol.com.

They can determine which colleges have the dumbest mascots.

Worst food: University of South Dakota.

Wondering about cash? The Brookings Institution offered “A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools,” evaluating schools based on alumni salaries. (CalTech, Colgate, MIT were leaders.)

Gawker uncovered the best safety schools, which they defined as “a euphemism for an institution of higher learning that’s a backup for wealthy high school students who are too dumb to go to Harvard.” (Cornell won.)

Ask yourself, then: “What, if any, role are college rankings playing in my college search? What effects are they making in my selection process? Is my common sense being overruled by some aspect of ‘the best’ or prestige? Do I trust other people’s opinions more than my own?”

These are important questions. Don’t allow others to do your thinking. Rankings are fine for a general guide, but the finer points of selection and commitment should come only from yourself. Think about that while you’re enjoying your Great Value Frosted Shredded Wheat!