Why U.S. News’ college rankings hurt students

September 11, 2013

Princeton University
Princeton University

U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings came out yesterday.  Or, should I say THE college rankings came out yesterday . . .

A MoneyWatch article deftly summarizes the shortfalls of the rankings system in 5 pithy points.  Points 2 and 3 struck me as particularly on point.

2. The rankings ignore job prospects.

Students today want to know what colleges and universities will provide them with a pathway to good-paying jobs. The rankings, however, don’t reward schools that graduate students who find solid employment. In fact, U.S. News doesn’t even ask about employment success. 

Given how much the conversation has changed to emphasize employability, the rankings should also shift to reflect the reality that education is practically meaningless if it cannot be put to use by the educated to become leading minds and contributing members of society.  Unemployment figures are at an all time high and graduates are flocking to graduate school as a temporary solution for staying out of the work force (I’m looking at you, law school-bound grads).  In this climate, unemployable or unwilling-to-be-employable students should be practically trained in addition to being drilled in theory (I’m looking at you, the Socratic method) to maximize their job prospects.  If anything, college rankings should reward schools that have put in place practical training programs to help its students succeed as professionals in the real world.  To be honest, what good is job creation if there aren’t enough professionally qualified candidates to fill these positions?

3. The rankings don’t care about learning outcomes.

U.S. News fixates on how selective a school is. It focuses on the academic caliber of a school’s freshmen, not on what happens once students arrive at their schools. That’s like judging a hospital by how sick the patients are when they arrive. Are schools doing an excellent job of educating their charges or do they fail? U.S. News sure doesn’t know and doesn’t attempt to find out. 

Graduation rates can only represent the final outcome of education—not the process.  If we’re not focusing our efforts on employability, then we should definitely be focusing our efforts on the substance and quality of education that students receive.  If students aren’t being hired, they better know some stuff.  I cannot begin to explain how embarrassing it is that U.S. students lag so far behind their first world peers in math, science, geography, and current events.  I mean, the number of people who didn’t even know in what part of the world Iraq was located despite our country being at war is appalling.

Aside from these deficiencies, the article highlights the fact that USNWR has modified the rankings determination by granting “less weight to class rank, which fewer high schools are reporting” and putting “more weight on ACT and SAT scores, which are correlated by family income.”

What does this mean for applicants aside from the fact that I would have done better under these conditions (i.e., I’m an insane test taker) and test prep centers are celebrating this news?  I’m not sure, but applicants would be misinformed to think test scores are going to be more prevalent as application criteria.  I can tell you they’re not.  Even though schools are inordinately obsessed with their rank and yield percentages, how USNWR ranks schools will not affect how these schools intend to evaluate their candidates—they’re still looking for well-rounded, passionate, larger-than-life students (see, for example, 2013 film Admission), so find your passion . . . but don’t screw up your tests.



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