The annual U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” list was published in August, and while college administrators may publicly downplay the rankings, most pay close attention to them. Not because they think the rankings have any validity, but because so many students and parents believe they do. When the rankings are favorable, you’ll find them featured prominently on a school’s website. In addition to attracting prospective students, high rankings make for happy alumni, and happy alumni are more likely to donate to their alma mater.
Getting into a highly ranked school may provide an ego boost for the student and bragging rights for parents, but attending a prestigious college is not what determines future success. If a college is only taking top students, how much of the students’ success can be attributed to the school? These high-achieving students have already demonstrated the drive and intelligence required to get into these schools, and they would be successful wherever they go to college. Rankings tell us nothing about how a college helps a student realize her potential. Would we say the best hospital is the one that only accepts the healthiest patients who are likely to have the best outcome, or the one that takes the most difficult cases and sometimes is unable to save a patient?
Even if you accept the idea of ranking colleges, can you trust the data used to make those decisions? Selectivity is one of the factors used to determine rankings, and some schools may count applications that were never completed, so it looks like they have more students applying, and therefore they appear to be more selective. There is also an incentive for colleges to solicit applications from students who will never be admitted, just to increase their selectivity.
What matters is the experience a student will have at that school. Spending four happy, productive and successful years at a college that is number 43 on the US News list makes that college number 1 for that student.
There are lots of lists, and different rankings reflect the values of the organizations that produce them. What matters to you may not be the same as what U.S. News, Washington Monthly, Kiplinger’s or Forbes deem significant in evaluating colleges. None of the rankings truly reflect the quality of teaching, because that is tough to measure quantitatively. Rankings don’t tell us how prepared a school’s students are for graduate school or the job market, or whether there’s a sense of community that makes a campus welcoming and fun.
It’s important to look critically at all of these rankings. They sell magazines and can be fun to read, but the bottom line is that there is no “best” college. There are best colleges for each student, and those are the schools that should be at the top of your list.