Editorial: Ignore rankings to decide colleges’ value

Staff Editorial | October 2, 2012    

The magazine U.S. News & World Report recently released the 2013 edition of its yearly…The magazine U.S. News & World Report recently released the 2013 edition of its yearly college rankings. The magazine ranks colleges in separate categories — national research universities, regional research universities, national liberal arts colleges and regional liberal arts colleges. The rankings also catalog the best undergraduate business programs, best value colleges, “A+ colleges for B students,” graduate schools by program and high schools.

The ranking of best colleges is based on seven criteria. From most to least important, they are undergraduate academic reputation, student selectivity for the fall 2011 entering class, faculty resources, graduation and retention rates, financial resources per student, alumni giving and graduation rate performance.

Although the U.S. News & World Report ranking does prospective students some good in giving them guidance, plus offering a concise description of each ranked college on its website, we believe that the ranking process is deeply flawed and not consistent with the real purpose of higher education.

First, an aspect of the ranking system that is problematic is whom these rankings are geared toward. While they clearly have some use for high school students considering colleges, college administrators are often conscious of where they rank. For example, this past August, Pitt featured a news story that boasted its high ranking in a “scientists’ best places to work in academia” list. Administrators are clearly conscious of these rankings, and they can make changes so that the college will rank higher, whether or not these changes are really positive for the student body.

We find most of these categories irrelevant in choosing a college, and we think they unfairly gear the ranking toward colleges with top reputations. For example, for national universities such as Pitt, 22.5 percent of the ranking is based on their reputation, which is decided by a peer assessment survey and ratings by high school guidance counselors. So much of what makes for a good college education and experience for any individual student cannot be summed up by a college’s reputation.

It’s troubling that the ranking places 15 percent of its score on a college’s selectivity. They look not only at the college’s acceptance rate, but what percentage of a college’s entering class contains students who were in the top 10 percent of their high school’s graduating class, plus the SAT and ACT scores of the 2011 entering class.

Surely colleges do not excel based on how their students did on standardized tests in high school. What makes an excellent college is the teaching, advising, courses, research and opportunities that exist when the students get there. Whether or not many of the students at a college graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school’s class is irrelevant, and we find it highly concerning that so few of the ranking system’s criteria actually focus on the education that the college provides.

We believe that Pitt, like all universities, excels — and has serious flaws — for reasons that cannot be explained in a ranking system. Prospective students would be better served to learn about the facets that make a college right for them by having conversations with current students and faculty of the academic departments they’re interested in.

Some colleges have started to refuse to participate in any way with U.S. News & World Reports’ rankings for best colleges. Pitt should discontinue any participation with this ranking system. Intellectualism, knowledge and discovery — not reputation and SAT scores — should reign on college campuses.

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