Step 2: School Rankings Matter Less Than You Imagine, So Think Different


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By Rajkamal Rao 

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We are staking a position here that is radical, but please bear with us.  We believe that for the average student applying to US schools, school rankings don't matter much.  There are far better ways to choose schools than using school rankings.

First, a primer on school rankings.  Ranking schools is big business in the United States.  For that matter, ranking anything in the US is big business.  Cars, hospitals, phone companies, home builders and consumer products are all ranked by various media outlets and customer satisfaction companies.  US consumers crave for rankings because it makes it easy for them to sift out good products and services from bad, without having to do a lot of research themselves.  And so, companies covet these rankings and influence those who rank to show them in good light.

Let's limit our discussion here to college and university rankings.  There are at least ten major outfits which rank colleges.
  1. US News
  2. Newsweek/Daily Beast
  3. Forbes
  4. Princeton Review
  6. Consumer Digest
  7. Washington Monthly
  8. Business Week (MBA)
  9. Financial Times (MBA)
  10. The Wall Street Journal (MBA)
Each uses its own method to rank, so the obvious question is which school ranking system is best for you?   If the school you like is ranked high in a few of the above but ranked lower in the others, what would you do?

Take the US News rankings.  How popular are these?  The New York Times reported that in 2007, within 3 days of the rankings release, the U.S. News website received 10 million page views compared to 500,000 average views in a typical month!  A twenty-fold increase!!

Let's dig deeper to understand how US News ranks undergraduate schools.  The magazine considers
"up to 16 key measures of quality to capture the various dimensions of academic quality at each college.  These measures fall into seven broad categories: peer assessment; graduation and retention rates; faculty resources (class size, for example); student selectivity (for example, average admissions test scores of incoming students); financial resources; alumni giving; and, for the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges categories only, graduation rate performance and high school counselor undergraduate academic reputation ratings".
On the face of it, the above looks robust, objective and impressive.  But did you notice something we did?  Of the categories, a vital element - how employers rank the school - is missing.  And placement statistics - details about how many (and the kinds of) jobs students got after graduation - are missing as well.

This does not make sense to us.  Most students go to school not only to get an education but also to find employment afterwards.  If we don't know how employers rate a school - say, by the number and kind of employer visits to university placement centers during graduation time - how can we make an honest assessment about how good the school is?   Don't assume that higher ranked schools automatically get more employer visits.  Employers visit schools based on a whole range of factors including how accessible a school is, the state the school is in, the state's unemployment rate and the state's overall economic environment.  So, would you go to a higher-ranked school which is visited by fewer employers or rather, a lower ranked school that is visited by more employers? 

What further complicates the picture is that the methodology is not consistent year after year. The University of Chicago reports that "ranking methods change from year to year, causing an institution’s ranking to rise or fall with little change in the underlying data".  In fact, US News decided to change its ranking methodology, again, in 2013.  Under a revised formula that puts less emphasis on who gets admitted and more on whether students graduate, lesser known schools have moved up in the rankings.

Even professional counselors in the US, whose only job it is to help students get into schools, don't think too well of the US News rankings.  The Washington Post reporting on a survey conducted by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, showed that most counselors who were surveyed don’t think the rankings are an accurate representation of information about the schools.  The counselors "take issue with the title of the rankings, “America’s Best Colleges,” saying that it begs the question of “best for whom” when, in fact, different colleges are best for different students".  [Red emphasis is ours].  "Counselors also expressed concerns that core measures of quality used in the rankings are either "poor” predictors of college quality or absolutely no use as a predictor, including peer assessment and student selectivity. Other measures used by the magazine, including faculty resources and financial resources are “fair” or “good” indicators of school quality, they said".

While on the subject of US News rankings, consider this comment made by an authority in the field:

"The intangibles that make up the college experience can't be measured by a series of data points. But for families concerned with finding the best academic value for their money, the 2013 edition of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings provides an excellent starting point for the college search".

Do you know the author of this comment?  US News, in its introduction to its methodology!

Finally, our reservation about commercial school rankings is exactly that - that is, these rankings are produced by commercial, for-profit companies.  The ultimate goal of these outfits is to sell their rankings or build a brand around them. 

So are rankings totally useless?  No, we are saying that there is an over-reliance on rankings and for the average international student seeking to enter a school in the US, this over-reliance doesn't serve him or her well.  Our school selection method - outlined in subsequent steps - uses rankings sparingly and more as a final filter, if at all, rather than as an initial starting point.  Our method relies more on macro-economic trends and labor data published by venerable US government agencies - such as the Federal Reserve Bank and the US Department of Labor - combined with higher education trends outlined by non-profit consortia such as the Council of Graduate Schools or the Chronicle of Higher Education to spot the right colleges and universities to meet student needs.

Here is a sampling of multiple critical views published about college rankings: 

  1. "The problems with hospital rankings are similar to the problems with U.S. News scoring for colleges and universities. The criteria are unrelated to quality, easily manipulated, and incentivize the wrong choices and behaviors", The Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2013.

  2. "The order of things - What college rankings really tell us", by Malcolm Gladwell, Feb 14, 2011 in the New Yorker magazine. 

  3. "The rankings should also reflect schools that have high employment and graduate school placement".   The New York Times

  4. "To be sure, the “best” school for one student may not be the best for another, and personal tastes, scholarly interests, geographic preferences, academic ability and financial considerations are important in deciding which school is optimal. A single ranking system cannot accommodate the huge variations in these traits between individuals".  The New York Times.

Still not convinced?  We understand if you are someone that doesn't feel good if you don't consider rankings in your decision process.  There are other ranking outfits too.

Consider rankings from QS, a British education company that ranks colleges by individual subjects - globally.  For example, if you want to see which schools are the best globally for Chemical Engineering, you can do just that by clicking here.

If you want to know how well your target school rates in terms of academic achievement alone - the number of Nobel Laureates and Fields Medalists; the number of research papers published in Nature or Science - consider the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) released annually by researchers in Shanghai.  This team claims to be completely independent of government interference and ranks schools based on hard data available from public sources.

Remember again that we make a clear distinction between school rankings which may ebb or flow with the tide and school reputation which is earned over decades (and in the case of the Ivy Leagues, centuries) of hard work and accomplishment.  It is actually a vindication for us that major international news outlets are catching on to the themes we have repeatedly promoted on our website and at our town halls.

As always, we are glad you are here. Where do you want to go next?
  1. Step 1: Prepare Better. Define Your Brand & Decide What You Want a t
  2. Step 2: School Rankings Matter Less Than You Imagine, So Think Different
  3. Step 3: Choose Your Target States by Better Understanding the US Economy
  4. Step 4: Identify Occupations in Demand and Industries that are Trending Upward
  5. Step 5: Review School Selection Factors, Including Financial Considerations
  6. Step 6: Finalize the List of Schools
  7. Step 7: Finalize your Application

Go back to "Rao Advisors - Home".

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