Why rankings should be taken with a grain of salt

While college rankings are highly publicized, they don't always accurately capture the value of an institution, report Eli Francovich and Chad Sokol for the Spokesman-Review.

Ranking systems have long been criticized for measuring institutions based on biased or unreliable factors, write Francovich and Sokol.

Methodologies also vary between different publications. For example, Francovich and Sokol note Money considers a student's first year post-graduation income in its best college rankings lists, while U.S. News & World Report factors in the school's reputation.

Are U.S. News rankings still relevant?

Many administrators debate the credibility of rankings that attempt to condense a complex and large amount of information into a single number, says Dan Bernardo, provost at Washington State University.

U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings are among the most popular, but have faced criticism for basing 22.5% of its formula on college reputation, which is partly collected by asking administrators of other schools their opinions, report Francovich and Sokol.

But many administrators can't accurately comment on the value of other colleges, says Julie McCulloh, dean of admission at Gonzaga University.

For example, when college presidents were asked to rate Princeton University's nonexistent undergraduate business program, many gave it top marks, write Francovich and Sokol.

How the "halo effect" is hurting your ability to help students

Although many administrators view college rankings as arbitrary and misleading, students still turn to these publications to inform their college decisions, write Francovich and Sokol.

In fact, the number of applications an institution receives can drop up to six percentage points once a school falls out of the U.S. News' top 50, reports a soon-to-be published study in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

Luckily, there are other ways to gauge an institution's value, writes Francovich and Sokol.

Students can leverage customizable college search tools like the College Scorecard, advises Greg Orwig, vice president for admission at Whitworth University.

Rankings can be a good place to start the college discussion, but seeking out more information is always a good idea, says Neil Woolf, associate vice president for enrollment management at Eastern Washington University (Francovich/Sokol, Spokesman-Review, 9/1). 

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