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Counselor's Corner > Posts > Inside the Rankings Game
November 26
Inside the Rankings Game

​Consider the results of a survey of college admission directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed after the revelations by Emory University and Claremont McKenna College:

“One percent reported that they had submitted incorrect information about their classes of admitted students, but 91 percent said that they believed other institutions have falsely reported scores and other data.”

Last week’s story about the latest college rankings reporting issue calls to mind a conversation I had years ago as an admission officer. It was the third year in which U.S. News and World Report published its “Best Colleges” issue. I recall a colleague saying “We are taking a beating in the rankings and, judging by the number of quality applicants we lost to [a school on the move], it will probably get worse.”

Though we could never establish it as a fact, sources we had trusted made two observations. One was the rumor that [school on the move] had put two initiatives in place. The first was to only report to college rankings publications the test scores, class ranks, and GPA’s of those granted regular unrestricted admission, while at the same time not including the same data from students admitted on probation,  since technically, they were not "fully admitted" until they completed their first year with target GPA’s.

Additionally, the school in question was suspected of significantly increasing merit aid awards in hopes of out-bidding its competition for the most highly qualified students. The institution reportedly hoped the move would improve its academic profile and, ultimately, its place in the rankings. More than a few students related that a stronger aid package influenced their decision to enroll at [school on the move] rather than at ours.

In my view, it was the first example of the gamesmanship and ‘wag the dog’ syndrome attributable to the competitive specter of college rankings and caused me to wonder what it was like in the land of the “big-timers.” Both the Inside Higher Ed survey and NACAC’s own survey data show that very few institutions would admit to “gaming” the rankings, but a majority of college representatives believe it happens elsewhere. The current rankings environment is filled with rumors, confusion, and ambiguity. Consider the contradiction highlighted below: 




In light of this, a student or parent might ask, “With such an undercurrent of suspicion in the sphere of college admissions, who can we trust?” With regard to college rankings publications, proceed with caution and handle with due care.

I recommend using sites that allow you to compile your own data on colleges, like College Navigator, a resource from the Department of Education designed for students. Watch the NACAC tutorial, and start building your list of favorites.


You can search for schools based on a variety of factors, like size, price, selectivity, region of the country, and many others. Then, add schools you are interested in to the “My Favorites” tab. To get started on building your personal ranking methodology, take a look at what admission officers and college counselors said were the most important factors that students should consider.  

If you need any more help, just contact me!

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