What do college rankings really tell us?

'Rankings sell... [but] it's not at all clear that leads to a better-informed public'

College rankings are increasingly focusing on measures of student success other than earnings. But with more rankings come more questions about their value in assessing institutions.

While U.S. News & World Report has long been the leader in college rankings, in recent years, there has been an outpouring of college rankings from other sources, including:

  • The Obama administration (College Scorecard);
  • The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce;
  • Forbes magazine;
  • Money magazine;
  • PayScale;
  • Washington Monthly magazine;
  • Kiplinger magazine; and
  • Niche.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and Times Higher Education (THE) recently ranked colleges based on four factors: student outcomes, institutional resources, learning environment, and student engagement. Some of the colleges and universities on WSJ/THE's list that are succeeding at student engagement are not the institutions that typically top college rankings. 

"The success of a college graduate should not be measured purely in terms of the salaries they earn," says Phil Baty, rankings editor at THE. "This is why we've also put an emphasis on how much the student is intellectually engaged, stimulated and stretched by their college education." 

How do students really feel about affordability? Here's what they told us.

Rankings like those produced by WSJ/THE are gaining traction in higher education, as institutions and consumers seek ways to gauge the value of an institution beyond graduates' earnings. Focusing on factors such as student outcomes also shines a light on institutions that are often overlooked in the traditional rankings, such as women's schools, public universities, and community colleges. 

In response to criticism, PayScale updated its ranking criteria to put a greater focus on salary data for students with majors outside of lucrative STEM fields, as well as graduates' feelings of work satisfaction.

"In choosing [a] college, you need to make a smart financial decision. What's the likely return on your investment?" says Katie Bardaro, vice president for data analytics at PayScale. "Is it the only factor? Absolutely not. But it's an important factor."

But not everyone is sold on college rankings, even with a growing push to highlight measures of student success.

"What's clear is that rankings sell," says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. "It's not at all clear that leads to a better-informed public. There's so much information it's hard for any high school student to sort it out."

"The way I look at it, as a university leader, you can't ignore rankings because prospective students don't ignore them," says University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Chancellor Gene Block. UCLA ranked 26th for WSJ/THE and 24th for U.S. News. "We have to pay some attention to them—not that we can do much about it" (Anderson, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 10/20; Stewart, "Common Sense," New York Times, 10/20). 

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