College Rankings

I love Malcolm Gladwell.

I know, I know.  He’s a sociologist for plebeians.  There are issues with his argumentation and research methods.  Blink was 100 pages too long.  But I love him.  I think he’s an engaging writer who tells me about things I didn’t know before. One of the reasons I like my subscription to The New Yorker is Malcolm Gladwell.  I get excited when I see he’s written something new, and I make sure to read his articles when I can.

Last night I read his article in this week’s issue, “The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us.” I teach Junior AP English.  This year, I wrote 47 college recommendation letters.  10 of them were for Harvard.  In my suburban, upper middle class district, the students “aim high” when it comes to college.  And aiming high usually means the top of the US News and World Report’s list of the “Best Colleges.”  But of course what does that mean?  What does it mean to be the best college?

The college Gladwell uses in parsing the criteria for the list is Penn State.  Two of my brightest, favorite students just got in there, and will be attending in the fall.  They’re great students who will probably succeed wherever they go, and they will undoubtedly get into “better” schools than Penn State but they’re choosing to go to Penn State.  Because they think it is the “best fit” for them (and probably because they’re dating and want to stay together.  Ah, young love).  It’s a choice not many students are mature enough to make at 17.  And one that isn’t made any easier by the artificial ranking system used by US News.

The US News system is, at best, a flawed one, designed to reward schools for “being good,” but not necessarily serving their students well.  Gladwell asserts that the criteria used to rank these schools aren’t the same criteria used to actually predict student performance.  The amount of professors who publish during the previous academic year?  Gladwell points out that professors who publish during the year tend to be WORSE teachers than those who don’t (then of course there’s the question of how to measure teacher effectivenes.  Neither Gladwell, nor I, wants to open that can of worms).  Reputation?  Basically schools are being awarded points of how good other schools think they are. And cost barely factors into the equation for US News, but is a large factor for many high school seniors.

Which is not to say that the school I went to (NYU) was not the best fit for me.  It was.  I loved it.  I met my husband because I went to NYU.  And yes, I got into “better” (read: higher ranked) schools but chose not to go to them.  But NYU was still a very good school.  It was still a school with a great reputation that I knew would get me a job after college.  I would be lying if I said the US News rankings didn’t play a factor in my decision-making (so did my Fifth Avenue dorm).

Are the US News rankings hurting our students?  Not sure.  On the one hand, some students use them as a guideline but not a Bible.  They use the rankings, and particularly the more specialized rankings that Gladwell doesn’t mention (Best Liberal Arts college etc), to their advantage.  But others are chasing the number.  Looking to go to the 8th best school in the country, not the 1st best school for them.



Filed under Magazines, School

41 responses to “College Rankings

  1. This is great advise, I know when I was looking at schools the numbers and rankings did not matter to me, it was whether or not I liked the school and thought it would be a good fit.

  2. Are you calling me a plebian? Cuz I love him, too…and he’s totally MY sociologist!

    Great post — interesting. 🙂

  3. i think the guideline vs. bible thing is the issue…i know i used it as a guideline, and i think it served me well…now i see kids using it as a bible, weeding out schools they dont think fit their perfect criteria (even though they have no idea what perfect is)

  4. I’d be very interested in how you would suggest a student go about picking the right school. I’m working toward graduate school right now, and while I did finish my applications recently I don’t know if I feel like I chose the right schools to apply to. Let alone apply to the place I should ultimately go.


    • Hi Crystal,

      I think it’s got to be a personal choice made with a lot of careful thinking about the future (something all teenagers are great at, aren’t they?). What are you hoping to get out of the program? Is it just a piece of paper saying that you’ve gotten a degree? Career counseling options? Are you going into a field where the reputation of your degree matters? All of those are the factors I’d consider. With undergrads, of course, that’s a lot more difficult. Most 17 and 18 year old students (myself included) have no idea where they want the rest of their lives to go.

      I’m also a big believer in the “feel” of things. If you love being in a place, you’ll probably be successful there. If you don’t, you probably won’t.

      Good luck!

    • Picking a grad school is nothing like picking a school for an undergrad degree. In fact, for a grad degree, you shouldn’t be picking a school at all – you should be picking a program and an adviser. Look at what the grad advisers are working on. Are there any that focus on what you are interested in? If not, look somewhere else. There is nothing for you at the #1 school, if you can’t find an adviser to work with.

  5. I work in a school and this made for some very interesting reading. Especially interesting regarding the ranking of the schools which most people, I think, assume to be directly from student performance. I’m off to check out the original article right now! Thanks for posting about this!

  6. I have a senior in high school – this is such a stressful time, waiting for the acceptances to come in.

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  8. J Roycroft

    Great post. Congrats on FP

  9. Thanks for this Liz! I started to write you a long comment here and quickly realized that this is a very touchy subject for me. As the comment got longer and longer I decided it was best to write an entire post on the subject.

    To start with?

    When you say “The US News system is, at best, a flawed one, designed to reward schools for “being good,” but not necessarily serving their students well.” – I couldn’t agree with you (and Gladwell) more. But regardless of the system upon which the rankings are based, these rankings play a significant role in the rest of our lives.

  10. Great post. I am currently in the process of visiting schools with my 18 year old and I have to say, there are so many factors in looking at what makes up a “good school”. But does she NEED to go to a “good school” to succeed?
    In the end we will sit down with her and look at cost vs return on the dollar vs how important it is to attend football games vs how close she is to home.
    A degree is a degree…. and as a good number of us found out, in the real world, it sometimes doesn’t mean squat where you went to college.

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  12. Thanks for pointing this out about school rankings. When I was in college at the University of Indianapolis school of business studying accounting, I remember hearing about the high business school rankings of friends I had that went to Purdue and IU, yet I couldn’t believe how much more thorough and advanced my academic workload was compared to theirs. Which got me wondering just how valid those school rankings really are.

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  14. aspiringtobesomeone

    As a kid who’s going to the local community college half by choice and half by necessity (financially) I have to fully agree.

    I have friends at bigger “better” schools, one of them being numero tres on the best schools list. We have the same classes, same assignments…. their school just has pickier rules with how kids act, and bigger class sizes.

    My school has programs they would faint over and harder homework… (they color, while I read and analyze).

    Ranking means absolutely nothing. I’m learning more, understanding more, I have more opportunities to talk to my professors and reach tutors, all while paying a whole lot less. I wouldn’t have changed my path for the world.

    Besides you can get kicked out of an ivy league or “top” school for having an opinion.

    Thanks, great article

  15. Kat

    I have to say that while I agree with you about not using it as an end all be all, I will say that some of the specific criteria that lists like US News use can be important indicators. I went a school with a fairly large and active alumni base and I think it has absolutely made a difference. Alumni giving and participation is something that those lists take into consideration. So, while I agree that the rankings shouldn’t be the end all, be all, I do think that if you dig deep enough they can provide some really useful information.

    Great post, keep up the stellar work 🙂

  16. As a 30-year-old college graduate, I can tell you that the name of the university/college you went to is far less important than real-world job experience is. It really only mattered, I noticed, when looking for my first job after graduation. My resume speaks for me now. Not the name of the school I went to.

  17. Ryan

    Great post, Liz! I am going to jump on the comment bandwagon and offer my two cents. I often look at the prices of these universities and am astounded and what I am looking at. I had a large scholarship at my school and 6 years out am still paying for it. I can’t even imagine what it is going to be like in another 20-25 years. I think the community colleges have definitely stepped up their game because more kids are finding out that they can get a great education at a two year school for a fraction of the price before transferring to a much more expensive four year school. Perhaps when students are 20 they will have a better way to use the school rankings as a guide while also factoring in their future plans, as well as the all important “feel” which, like you, I can’t explain, but knew when I was at the school I wanted to attend.

  18. University rankings always have more than a whiff of voodoo science about them. While it’s fun to have momentary bragging rights in the years when your alma mater comes top, the methodologies used are usually open to much argument.

    The troublesome thing is that prospective students (and their occasionally over-involved parents) and a few less-than-astute employers do pay close attention to them. When I advise students as to college applications, one of the key things I emphasise is getting some first-hand experience of the college and figuring out what area you’ll enjoy living in and studying at. Of course, you’ll never really know for sure until you start the course, but a little practical research goes a long way, and often a lot further than the rankings.

    The rankings are more useful in terms of a general broad stratification (the top 5, or 10, or 20, or whatever), rather than trying to narrow things down more than that.

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  20. My sister is currently in the process of applying for universities. When I asked her which university she would want to go to ? She replied Hong Kong University because it ranked higher than other universities that she applied for. Honestly, somehow we do not know how these rankings, especially the world wide ones, really work. ( I mean what do they include to adjust these rankings, etc.) The rankings are really affecting students’ decision, but they do not necessary understand what the rankings mean. They just know that the better schools are on the top; socially constructed reality?! I would say so.

  21. Agreed that Gladwell’s work is worth the time. As far as the rankings go, who cares? The first boss you have? In a hyper-connected world people want to see what you have DONE! Not where you went to school.
    If I had the choice between showing off my degrees or a URL…I would choose the URL
    Thanks for the post!

  22. Brandon

    I have always felt that U.S.News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” rankings are like a Top 40 radio station deciding what today’s hit songs are that we should be listening too. Ultimately, a person’s choice of college should be made based on finances, interests, academics, work opportunities, student body characteristics, extra-curricular offerings and many other factors. Any single measure of a college’s worth should not be starting point or deciding factor in any college search.

  23. Although I’m out of college, I always read the lists of “top schools” whenever I come across them. I like to see if my Univeristy is on there! I never based my decision on these lists, but it didn’t hurt to see that top magazines and companies recommended my school. I was also a tour guide for my school and liked using some of these rankings as an added incentive. Interesting post!

  24. It’s kind of funny to hear (read?) you say that you got into better schools than NYU, because in my mind I’ve always heard/thought it to be so that NYU was right up there with the Ivies. For my high school, going to a non-community college was the big leagues. So I guess it’s all dependent on perspective. Interesting stuff!

  25. i’m so happy i came across your article. i’ll be graduating high school next year and i’m actually a little flustered by these college rankings. i’ve always thought that people would be successful wherever they go as long as they’re smart and of course, hardworking… but i’ve always had this doubt inside me saying that some companies that are hiring freshly graduates from uni might also want to know that their future employees come from highly-ranked school.

    thanks again for the article ^^ it, at the very least, helped me a little.

  26. Really great post. The problem with league tables is very similar in the UK – and I fell into the trap last year when applying to universities. I was applying during my working gap year after I finished my A-Levels, ending up with 4 A grades. I felt so overwhelmed by the number of universities I could possibly choose that I really relied on the league tables – I only considered institutions in the top 20. I ended up with only one uni making me an offer (University of Leicester, where I’m now in my first year); I got the interview stages for two others and was rejected outright by the final two. I feel like if I hadn’t been so close-minded about where I thought I -should- be applying, I would a) not have experienced the misery I did when I received all my rejections, and b) ended up with more choice when all the universities has responded. Finally, although the University of Leciester was the lowest-ranked place I applied to, it’s turned out to be the best possible choice for me, and for my History degree. Those tables should come with a “handle with caution” label.

  27. The thing that I don’t trust about college rankings, or any rankings for that matter is the objectivity of them all.

    Thank for this post Mr. English teacher! 🙂

  28. I enjoyed reading your post. Having worked in higher ed before, this topic intrigues me. Congrats on being fp’d!

  29. It’s great advice. It’s really sad when parents put too much pressure on their kids to go to the “best”.

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  31. Getting into college isn’t that hard, and finding the right college is a pretty hard decision, but the hardest decision is:

    What to major in.

    What should I do? If you’re not mathematically inclined, then perhaps your best hope is a mere teaching or administration job. If you wanted to be an architect all your life, perhaps now isn’t the time for these studies-you may not be making money.

    Should you do what you love and risk living a life in poverty (for ex. music or philosophy major)? Or should you find a major that leads to a high paying job simply to be socially and financially competent?


    • I think you’re absolutely right. When I went to college, I wanted to major in something that interested and excited me, so I chose a double major in Latin and English. You can imagine that the job prospects with someone with those particular skills is bleak. I was lucky to fall into teaching and I love it, but I know it’s a last resort for many. My advice is, always, to follow passion where it leads, but I know that’s a scary, untenable road for many!

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  33. Mature students go to the same college as their significant other? Uhm. I’d have to disagree with that assessment, but alright.

    But yes, I think college ranking is strange… I get a lot of crap for going to Azusa Pacific from peers who consider themselves better than me… but I love this school and it’s a really good school. So poo on them that I didn’t spend all my time looking for a university that I’d be miserable at, like them.

    • Oh I think you’re definitely right that deciding to go to the same school as your significant other is NOT a mature choice to make. But I do think that choosing to go to a school that’s a good fit for you is.

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