The Problem with College Rankings

There are a number of college rankings.

Of course, the best known by far is the U.S. News& World Report ranking, which for many people is the college ranking. (This year, Princeton edged out Harvard for bragging rights.)

Forbes publishes another ranking, using an approach designed by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. (Stanford comes out on top in that one.)

Washington Monthly tries to rank schools on perceptions of their social usefulness. (University of California – San Diego wins that pageant.)

What bothers me about all such rankings is that they seem to pronounce certain institutions to be “elite” and thus worth sweating blood for students to get admitted to, while the rest are also-rans or even poor schools – those far down in the rankings. Many Americans assume that students who get to attend colleges and universities near the top receive a superb education, while students who have to settle for a lowly school will get a correspondingly poor education.

That way of thinking, however, is badly mistaken. In truth, students who attend a prestigious college do not necessarily get a better education than do students who attend one that is far down in the rankings. Some of them might, but it’s just as probable that a student would actually be better off at a “lesser” institution. In other words, many students would be better off educationally at a non-prestigious college, even if means that their parents won’t be able to crow about having a son or daughter at a big-name school.

One reason why I make that claim is that students often receive scant attention from professors at those big-name schools, where most of the faculty members are so busy with their research work that they spend little time with undergraduates. Among other problems, that leads to inattention to the students’ writing. As former Indiana University English professor Murray Sperber wrote in this Pope Center piece, most students badly need a professor to line-edit their written work. That kind of attention is uncommon even in smaller schools, but exceedingly rare at the big, famous research universities that appear to be so good in the rankings.

A second reason for my claim is that the environment for studying is often much better at smaller, little-known colleges than at big-name institutions. That point comes through strongly in the book Paying for the Party by Armstrong and Hamilton, which I reviewed here. Many students who enrolled at Indiana University floundered in the heavy sports and partying campus environment, but fared much better after they transferred from the prestigious flagship to regional schools.

And third, there is the mismatch problem. An “elite” school might be ideal for a student with very high academic capabilities and competitiveness, but a nightmare for one with low capabilities and a fragile psyche.  One such student, Kashawn Campbell, was admitted to UC-Berkeley because he was a top student at an extremely weak high school. He would have been far better off if he had enrolled instead at a less competitive Cal State school or community college, but, lured to Berkeley by its great prestige, he barely avoided flunking out. (I discuss Kashawn’s troubles in this Minding the Campus piece.)

Of course, people should be free to publish rankings of colleges, even though they are usually misleading as to the thing that should really matter: Will this particular student find the school to be an optimal learning environment? No ranking can answer that question.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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