College Guidance professionals have long had a troubled relationship with college rankings. Whenever a parent comes to my office with a pile of the annual college rankings issues of Newsweek, US News, Forbes, etc. I know I’ve got my work cut out for me. Sure, these resources have some value, but they generally do more harm than good. A recent survey of college admissions experts from high schools and colleges agrees with me.
Released by The National Association of College Admissions Counselors, “A View of the U.S. News & World Report Rankings of Undergraduate Institutions from the College Admission Counseling Perspective” describes four main concerns:
First, the rankings’ title, “America’s Best Colleges,” is not an accurate representation of the information provided by the rankings. “Best for Whom?” is my usual response. College guidance is about finding a match between the student’s interests and needs and the offerings at a college or university.
Second, the methodology behind the rankings is problematic. A majority of college admission counselors believe that several core elements of the U.S. News rankings are either “poor” or “not at all” predictors of college quality, including peer assessments, student selectivity, and alumni giving. A majority of college admission counselors believe that other core elements, including graduation/retention rates, faculty resources, financial resources, and graduate rate performance are “fair” or “good” indicators of college quality.
Third, college admission officers believe rankings encourage counter-productive behavior among colleges, though they are less likely to believe that such behavior takes place on their campus. That’s right: improving their rank is so important that some colleges do things that undermine the education they offer to move up a few spots.
Finally, most high school-based college counselors believe the rankings are not valuable: on a scale of 1 (strenuously object to rankings) to 100 (strongly support the rankings), high school counselors rated the rankings a 29. College admission officers also don’t like the rankings: they rated the rankings a 39, indicating strong negative opinions in both areas of the profession.
How did this frenzy start? There are certainly many factors. College, especially private college, is insanely expensive, and families want to be sure they are spending money wisely. The magazines publish these lists to increase sales and subscriptions, not as a public service, so the tone is provocative and feeds the frenzy. School counselors, especially those at public schools, have little, if any, training in the college admissions process, and when they start their job they quickly understand that college guidance is a small part of their job, and of lower priority than “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” Special Education, course scheduling and state testing mandates. That heavy load, combined with budget cuts, leads families to feel they aren’t getting the support they need and they go out and buy U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges.”
I’m lucky to do this challenging work at an independent school, because my colleagues and I know the students we advise and we get to spend lots of time working with them individually. We help create lists of possible colleges based on the student in front of us, not a list in a magazine.
My advice to parents: invest your understanding of the college selection process in more reliable, individualized resources, including the advice of your college counseling staff. We look forward to talking with you.