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College Rankings

Guest Column
W. Victoria Lee

Yes, so I have heard. We are ranked fourth in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. How do I feel? Or should I ask, how do we all feel? Outrage? Pride? Or just apathy? Having been through the process of applying to colleges, I believe the majority of college students have checked the ranking guide “America’s Best Colleges” at least once in high school, not to mention those of us who beheld and read the guide as a bible.

Although we say we choose which colleges to apply to based on the school’s affordability, campus atmosphere, distance from home, and maybe just simply its compatibility with us, we all know that in reality we choose schools based on their reputations. After all, nobody will choose to go to a college just because it has beautiful red brick walls. We all want the best education that we can possibly obtain and reputation is often a pretty decent indicator of quality education.

Consequently, we pay attention to the rankings of the schools because we tend to believe that the schools with higher rankings are the schools with good reputations. Recognizing this, it’s easy to understand people’s fury (or contentment) about MIT’s being ranked fourth. Most people who attend high ranked colleges have worked very hard to be there. Last year, around half of the students admitted to MIT for the Class of 2006 were the valedictorians of their high schools. Naturally, we are proud of the school we attend and we care about what other people think of our school. But what is really being told by the ranking? What exactly does it rank? And should we really care so much about it?

The rankings are based on data collected according to seven categories branched into 16 academic areas of each school. The data themselves, however, are gathered from the colleges via surveys, which implies that the data are neither complete nor perfectly accurate. Indeed, five percent of the schools being surveyed this year did not return their responses.

Incomplete data then leads to estimation, which is exactly what happened. The U.S. News Web site explaining ranking methodology further explains that each academic area “is assigned a weight that reflects [their] judgment about how much a measure matters.” If the rankings are based on the data that have been unilaterally judged, how can we depend on the ranking as faithfully as if it has been universally agreed upon?

We all know that when we conduct research, we have to refer to multiple sources in order to check for accuracy, so why don’t we just view the U.S. News rankings as a set of possible, instead of definite, rankings?

Furthermore, one fourth of the ranking score is based upon “peer assessment.” The “peer” indicated here is a category comprised of “presidents, provosts, and deans of admission at peer institutions.” What they are asked to do in the survey is to rate the academics of other schools, collectively called the “peer schools.” The rating scale runs from 1 to 5 where 5 being the best. In addition, there’s another choice marked “don’t know.”

Honestly, this is an incredibly clever way of ranking schools’ reputations. The number of people who rate a school naturally reflects the fame of that school. If a school is virtually unheard of, then undoubtedly the rater will check the “don’t know” box. Similarity, if a school is known to have excellent faculty, then this distinction will show on the surveys as well. But how much do these peers really know about their “peer schools”? After all, there are thousands of colleges in the States, not to mention that only 64 percent of those who were surveyed responded.

Alumni giving rate is another category that I find to be a highly debatable ranking factor. It is meant to be “an indirect measure of satisfaction” of the graduates. But do happy alumni really love to give back wads of greens to their alma mater? Most of the top ranked schools are private colleges that are usually accompanied by very expensive tuitions and not everyone who attend these schools come with great financial aid packages in one hand and tons of scholarships in the other.

The chances are that many people will be paying off a debt of some sort when they graduate. Those who decide to go on to graduate, law or medical schools will have even heavier loads. These alumni can be perfectly satisfied with their colleges, but not everyone who has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars when he was in the school would want to pay more when he is out of the school.

Nevertheless, some of the other ranking factors do, in my opinion, measure the quality of each college to a considerably accurate extent. Indicators such as retention rate, faculty resources, and student selectivity cannot lie. It is almost a law of nature that a more selective school will be higher ranked than a less selective school. And thank goodness that U.S. News & World Report put these facts together into a guide. After all, where else would we go if we need up-to-date information on the colleges?

If you ask me what I think of the ranking system, I’ll have to say that ranking is, ultimately, just a reference. So for those of you who are furious about our current fourth-place position, don’t lose sleep over it. Because once we get out into the world and start working, people will know where we really are (namely, at the top, of course).

For those of you who can live with the U.S. News ranking, don’t be so content about it, either. Because you know where we really belong (that is, again, at the top). Finally, for those of you who don’t really care, well, no harm done. But it wouldn’t hurt to give the reference a quick glance every now and then.

W. Victoria Lee is a member of the Class of 2006.