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The Case Against University Rankings

For students looking to study in the United States, questions about every aspect of the application process seem to be preceded with “it depends.” This is because the whole admissions process is defined to be subjective, not objective as schools look for students who will fit their profile and students look for schools for which the fit feels right. The American students spend a great deal of time and effort on the concept of fit and it is our suggestion that foreign students do the same.

From the American viewpoint, what happens in the classroom is only a part the college experience. The academics may be the most important part of the university experience, but the entire experience of being away from home, becoming socially skilled, becoming emotionally mature and self-assured are also very important. This is why the concept of “fit” is important and why the admissions process becomes dependent on multiple components, not just a test score like it is in the student’s home country. It surprises many overseas students that there is no standard high school board exam in the United States – no A Level or Gaokao. University bound prospective undergraduate students should take the SAT or the ACT to be considered for admission, but increasingly these tests are not required. Essays, personal statements, letters of recommendations and extra curricular activities all impact the admissions process and thus we state the process is subjective, it’s about the right fit.

Subjective Admissions mean Subjective Rankings

Since there is no standard test and no standard ranking of students, the ranking of schools also becomes hugely subjective. Rankings seek to identify schools that are the best, but the underlying question is the best at what? Most rankings seek to assess the quality of a school based upon its reputation. So much is put on reputation, but is that something that can be measured? Even if it could, is this a stereotype that can ever be changed? Oxford and Cambridge were some of the world’s first major universities, garnered great respect centuries ago and carry that respect today. Harvard, Yale, Princeton were some of America’s first and foremost universities and have kept that impression today.

What isn’t displayed in many rankings is how close the ranking scores are. In the US News national university category, two schools are tied for #1 and five schools are tied for #5. That means the #10 school may be just a fraction of a point away from #5 status. Four schools in the Top 50 group are tied for #38 position and five schools are tied for #45.

The Business of University Rankings

To understand rankings better, it is good to look at why there are rankings. For the most part, rankings are a business whose output is designed as a product for consumers. US News is a magazine and their Best Colleges edition is one of their best sellers. It is such a best seller that they’ve expanded it into other sectors and now publish editions with Best Graduate School and Best Business schools. They even combine these into a book and sell these along with something called “My fit engine” a personal ranking tool. One is produced by the Times of London (newspaper) and as you can imagine, it is designed to sell ads, web visits and newspapers.

Skeptics of rankings point out that the rankings business only works for publishers when there is change in the ranking order, so the proprietors of rankings are always altering or “improving” their methodology. This improvement is designed to create change in the rank order so that people will be drawn to next year’s edition.

The publishers of university rankings will argue that modest annual changes are designed to reflect changes in the student’s expectations and to counter school’s possible “gaming” of the university rankings. The bottom line is that rankings are a business and that they should be viewed as only part of a student’s criteria in looking for a school.

Understanding What University Rankings are Really Ranking

It is also important to look at what is being ranked. Schools in the heralded “National Universities” category are in this category because they offer a wide breadth of graduate programs and participate heavily in the research enterprise that is so well regarded in American higher education. If you are an undergraduate student, the research success of a school is secondary to your education, you will most likely want to be in a setting where your professors are great teachers, not great researchers. That means you might look to regional universities that focus more on undergraduate education or Liberal Arts institutions that have very little research in their operations.

If I am a student interested in performing arts, would the world renowned Harvard University be a good choice for me, or would I do better under the close attention and care of a faculty at a Liberal Arts college that has a strong tradition in performing arts? That’s the type of thing to consider when looking into the best fit, especially since there is no definitive ranking of performing art schools.

If you are student interested in earning a graduate degree later in your career, you should consider the paths into graduate school as compared to job/industry placement. It is a common misconception that the best way to get into an elite graduate school is through that school’s undergraduate division, in fact the opposite is generally true. The elite schools like a diversity of thought and look to draw students from a variety of sources and a variety of perspectives. An example of this is the College of Wooster, a well-regarded liberal arts college who ranks #7 (out of 914 private, bachelor granting schools) in the number of their students who go onto a Ph.D. in Chemistry. If you think that someday you will want a Ph.D. in Chemistry, you should really consider College of Wooster for your bachelor’s degree.

Rankings and reputations should also be viewed by discipline and tailored to your eventual goal. Some very well regarded schools have departments or programs that perform far worse than others at that school. Other, less renowned schools have standout programs and very caring, very connected and very powerful faculty. So when you look to use rankings, you should look deep into what is being ranked and how that affects your future. Hopefully students and their parents can use rankings as an indicator of quality, not a measurement of quality. Nobody can guarantee a student’s success based on a certain degree – it depends.

Mark Shay is a business developer with a long history of success helping higher education institutions recruit students. In an illustrative career that has spanned three decades, Shay has served thousands of customers, ranging from individual faculty members and graduate deans, to university presidents and foreign governments. He is well known for balancing the non-commercial spirit of educators with the commercial realities of operating efficiently and effectively using technology to improve results. He founded, and has worked in leadership roles at two universities and IDP Education. He has recently started a consulting practice and is serving as an advisor to AAE. Mark is also the editor of ChinaTrend: Insights into the Higher Education market in China


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