College rankings are big business. Each year, many prospective students and their families around the world wait impatiently for particular publishers to come out with their college rankings. However, no matter how objective college rankings try to be, they are flawed.
For example, one of the criteria used in some college rankings is the average ACT or SAT score of incoming students. While this statistic seems to be a straightforward indicator, that is not the case. One of our recent blog posts described superscoring, in which a campus can use the highest subscores from different testing dates and combine them to give the student a higher “superscore.” While the UW System campuses do not superscore, other campuses do, and that makes their incoming students look as though they are higher-achieving test-takers. Therefore, superscoring campuses may rank higher.
Here’s another example from the U.S. News & World Report’s college-ranking methodology: Did you know that the Undergraduate Academic Reputation Score—which is the most important variable in the ranking, accounting for 22.5 percent of a college’s final score—is the result of high-ranking campus officials grading the other campuses in their category? Some officials are asked to rank more than 200 other campuses.
How can any one individual have enough information to rank that many campuses!
Taking it one step further, Thomas Brennan, a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and founder of the Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, MI, asked approximately 100 academics, judges, and practitioners to rank a list of law schools. He put many well-known campuses on that list, along with Penn State. As it turns out, his respondents ranked Penn State’s law school in the middle of the bunch—and Penn State didn’t even have a law school until years later (Rank Speculation, ABA [American Bar Association] Journal, April 1996, pp. 42-43). Whoa.
For these and other reasons, we advise prospective students and their families to resist the temptation to rely on college rankings. Looking at flawed yet easily digested college rankings is contrary to finding a campus that is a good fit. We encourage prospective students to think critically about what is important to their college experience, to do their independent research, and to visit campuses to find their best option.