Just as the Princeton Review chooses 377 colleges and universities for its guide to the “best-of” guide, Sparknotes lists a similarly arbitrary 283 institutions in its “Best Colleges” publication. According to the editors, they are, “the greatest colleges, hand-picked by our experts”, who provide, “insider info and nitty gritty details.” In addition, “SAT and ACT scores, application deadlines, tuition and financial aid info, and more,” are also provided, as well as “a handy icon system to help you find your ‘perfect’ college match”, based on a reader’s responses to a nine-question “College Match Quiz.”
This cover-page promotion activated my curiosity and practiced cynicism. Among my first questions are: “What standards are used to qualify a college as being among the “greatest” 283 (of the nearly 2,200 according to the Chronicle of Higher Education)?” and, “Who are the selecting “experts?” Interestingly, in the first few paragraphs of the introduction, Sparknotes drops its use of the term “greatest,” which appears on the cover, and switches to the more general term, “great”, in defining the chosen institutions. Along the way, the editors take an unmistakable jab at U. S. News and World Report by noting how, “best” and “top tier” have lost their “relevance”, [because], “those rankings rely on a narrow range of statistics.”
As shown in the following discussion of the icons, Sparknotes is a bit inconsistent in its definition of the term “narrow.” There are a total of nine different icons, which Sparknotes claims “[capture] the unique ways in which schools approach academics and their future careers.”
- “Big Brain” - highly competitive admissions and academic atmosphere,
- “Big Idea” – unconventional approaches to learning and student evaluation,
- “Big Plan” – highly specialized and focused programs,
- “Big Perspective” – expansive breadth and depth to the world of knowledge and thought,
- “Big Choice” – a wide range of options in terms of majors,
- “Big Research” – emphasis on exploration and analysis by both faculty and students,
- “Big Hand” – student-centered support and nurturing atmosphere,
- “Big Job” – practical application of learning through out-of-class opportunities/programs
- “Big World” – international study and service learning is encouraged
While it might be assumed that at least a few institutions would have “earned”, for lack of a better term, several of these icons, in leafing through the text of several dozen, only one school had as many as three. In hoping to understand this narrow scope of categorization, I looked first at the composition of the “team of experts” and the methodology used in compiling the profiles for each “great” school. Reference was only made to the “teachers and guidance counselors…, high school students, college students, and recent college graduates”, whose help was enlisted. As for methodology, there was no mention of it to be found in any part of the guidebook. You are free to form your own opinion on the degree of this team’s level of expertise.
Be that as it may, the organization of “283 Great Colleges” is, nonetheless, user-friendly. The college and university profiles in the main section appear in alphabetical order. Basic contact information, the icon(s) that Sparknotes editors believe represent the school’s overall academic character, a sidebar listing “5 Reasons Why It’s Cool,” and concise but relatively informative observations relating to on-campus and off-campus life (which I believe is the “nitty-gritty”) are included in each two-page institutional profile.
Of at least equal importance however, is a second sidebar that provides quick access to important dates and details relating to the admissions process at the school (including the percentage of acceptance for early decision applicants), some demographic information on the student body, brief notes on financial aid, and the percentage of students who graduate from the institution in either four or six years. This latter bit of data is crucial in determining what the true total cost of attendance might be during the time of attendance. I can recall a former student who had to choose between one college that had a comprehensive cost higher than her other option, but whose four-year graduation rate, at just under ninety-three percent, was nearly twenty percentage points higher than where she chose to matriculate. Difficulties in getting into prerequisites or other courses needed for graduation resulted in three extra semesters of time and tuition in order for her to complete her degree.
In summary, it has some helpful features, but be aware of the limitations stated here.
The cover of The Best 377 Colleges promises much from the contents, proclaiming its exclusivity through being, “The ONLY GUIDE with CANDID FEEDBACK from 122,000 students, 62 RANKING LISTS, UNIQUE RATINGS, [and] FINANCIAL GUIDANCE”. My first thought was “377? Why 377? Why not 250 or 400?” The bit about “candid feedback” caused me to wonder, “122,000 students? How did they synthesize data from that many students?”
Paging forward quickly, I glanced at a few of what must have been the ranking lists, among them, “Best College Radio Station,” “Lots of Greek Life,” followed naturally by one titled, “Lots of Beer.” In fairness, I will point out that these appeared in the sub-categories on “Extracurriculars“ and “Social Life,” respectively. Still, I wondered if these lists came from the “candid feedback” mentioned on the front cover and, as I read on, found out that they were.
Before continuing, a word on Princeton Review’s position on rankings is appropriate. In Part One under the sub-heading, “About Those College Ranking lists,” the editors of the Best 377 Colleges directly criticize the college rankings publications. As they stated on page 33,
“Here you won’t find the colleges in this book ranked hierarchically, 1 to 377. We think such lists – particularly those driven by and perpetuating a ‘best academics’ mania – are not useful for the people they are supposed to serve (college applicants).”
With this in mind, the “School Rankings and Lists” in Part Two brought the following to mind:
First, “hierarchy” is defined in Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary as, “arrangement into a graded series.” Interestingly, the schools on each of the 62 School Rankings and Lists are not ordered alphabetically but rather in, “our ‘Top 20’ [i.e. numbered from 1 to 20] ranking lists in eight categories [based on the compiled results of the student surveys]. Is it reasonable then to ask, “Is this not then a hierarchical ranking?” I would think so.
And either I am splitting hairs or Princeton Review wants readers to buy into the notion that rating categories such as, “Administrators Get Low Marks”, “Best-Rub College”, “Easiest Campus To Get Around”, “Students Pack the Stadiums”, are as inherently valid and compelling as the “best academics” rating criteria of the rankings publications. Nonetheless, the rating categories are consistent with Princeton Review’s stated mission to provide the most accurate representations of how surveyed students at the schools truly feel about their institutions.
What I regard as the principal shortcoming of the 62 School Rankings and Lists is the absence of a way to cross-list features. That is, if a student was hoping to put together a list of schools where, “Students Study the Most”, where, “Professors Get High Marks”, that has the, “Best Campus Food”, “Where Everyone Plays Intramural Sports”, and is a “Jock School”, each list would have to be arranged side by side to determine which schools appear on the most ratings lists. This task is further complicated by the, additional lists of, “Great Schools for 20 of the Most Popular Undergraduate Majors”, which incidentally, are arranged alphabetically.
The best place for students to search for schools and compare them side-by-side would be College Navigator, a website run by the Department of Education. Here you can narrow colleges by size, test scores, locale, and many other factors.
In helping my students navigate the college selection and research
processes, I have seen them turn from time to time to some of the higher
profile college guidebooks for what they hope is “authoritative”
information and insights on schools they are considering. While the blog
posts up to this point have centered primarily on the annual rankings
publications that are released each autumn, experience has shown that some students may bypass these altogether and use what’s known as a “guidebook” instead.
Regardless of which option they choose my advice has always been that
what they are looking for is consistency in information from source to
source. I freely admit that it may have seemed overly simplistic to tell
them, “If it looks like a duck, walks like duck, sounds like a duck and
smells like a duck well, chances are good that it is a duck.” In other
words, is what you believe about an institution or program and its
culture/personality addressed in, say, statements by the admissions
representative, brochures, the viewbook, the school’s website, the
departmental homepage, guidebooks and finally, during a campus visit?
There were usually nods of agreement from my students indicating they
understood why all this was important, until I got to the point of
“campus culture and institutional personality”. A puzzled facial
expression would then be accompanied by their asking in so many words,
“Campus culture? Campus personality? What is that and why is it a
This was a great segue to a favorite anecdote that pretty much
clarified the nature of these two institutional features. I related how
during a campus visit where a former student was giving me a tour, she
turned to me and said, “Before we begin Mr. Prieto, I want to give you
some idea of what to expect. The best way to explain what this place is
like is that at [this school] women shave their heads and some of the
guys wear dresses. That’s just the way it is, and no one bats an eye.
And this is just one of the things about [this school] that you might,
but probably won’t, see in the viewbooks and guidebooks.”
In another instance, during a discussion over lunch with another
former student, I asked my usual question of whether he found what he
expected at his new four-year home. As he replied,
important exception, yes. With the high level of diversity mentioned in
everything I had read about [this school], I took it for granted that it
would be just like high school, where the differences in our
backgrounds didn’t stop strong friendships from forming. It was one of
the things I valued most about my high school experience. Here, yes the
student body is very diverse, but too many people choose to hang out
with only those from the same background. So, I don’t have any Black
friends or Asian friends or Hispanic friends anymore. Maybe I just need
to wait a little bit longer to see if my impression of only three months
While these two instances may best illustrate,
“smelling like a duck” as further verification that you are getting what
you think you are getting, it also speaks to the depths a student must
go to be as informed as possible in making a decision on a college.
This also leads us back to the principal distinction between the various
rankings publications and their corollary, the guidebooks. Guidebooks
attempt to identify and elaborate on what students on a particular
campus can expect to experience from a sociological and interpersonal
perspective – two dimensions of “institutional fit” that go beyond
matching up academically with the program, features and benefits of a
Given this orientation, we will proceed with a review and discussion of the following guidebooks:
- The Best 377 Colleges, 2013 Edition, published by The Princeton Review
- 283 Great Colleges (no publication date given) Spark Publishing
- Fiske Guide to Colleges 2013, published by Sourcebooks EDU
- The K&W Guide To College Programs and Services for Students With
Learning Disabilities or AD/HD, 11th Edition, published by The
Alright, let’s begin…
Tomorrow: Reviewing the Princeton Review
Lloyd Thacker is a former college counselor and admission officer who founded a non-profit called the Education Conservancy to improve the college admission process for students. In 2007, he coordinated a letter campaign and compiled advice for students and parents from deans of admission. The letter urged college presidents to refuse to fill out the US News & World Report reputational survey. So far, over 60 presidents have signed the letter in support.
The Counselor’s Corner recently spoke with Mr. Thacker in a candid interview about the current state of US college rankings.
How do you explain the meaning of college rankings to students and families?
When I give talks to parents, I play this out, and I say think about it. How many of you had a meaningful and rewarding college experience? They all raise their hands. How many of you realize you could have gone to another college and had a similarly rewarding experience? They all raise their hands. How many of you are successful in business? Most raise their hands. How many of you went to a top ranked college or university? Very few raise their hands.
[Rankings] are not educationally valid or reliable. In other words, they don’t measure what matters. This is a business. That’s what parents and students should know when they look at [rankings]. This is about generating revenue for a magazine. These are not educators, these are business people.
How is selecting a college different from making a business transaction?
They have to understand their relationship with learning. A consumer transaction is rational. You know what you want. You can identify the criteria, then you can go out and measure and assess against these criteria in a very objective and informed way. It’s a rational process.
When you’re talking about selecting a college you’re making an informed decision about a relationship between you and a school. You can’t know all there is to know about you as a student. You can’t know all there is to know about a college, or a set of colleges.
We’re doing precision guesswork, at best. And that should be celebrated. We should embrace uncertainty and wonder and the prospect of discovery. And most importantly we should recognize the role of the student in making education happen in all kinds of places. Education is what you make of it.
What do terms like “dream school” say about the state of higher education?
They're overrated. Students have to believe in themselves and dream about themselves. Students and parents need to trust their own educational instincts and experiences. If they’re going to make an investment that’s so important, be very skeptical of business journalists' approach to marketing. Great education happens in all kinds of places. It’s amazing how market metaphors and tools have permeated so many aspects of our lives.
Are you hopeful that there will be a de-emphasis on college rankings?
We involved in education are hopeful. I continue to be hopeful. I think there’s an effort to push back and I think it will have an impact.
The following is an editorial on college rankings submitted by Marc Priester, a sophomore
economics and government and politics major at the University of
Maryland. He recently published another editorial about college rankings
in the UMD school newspaper titled “College Rankings Fail.”
The views expressed in this article reflect the views of Mr. Priester,
and not necessarily the views of the National Association for College
The perceived relationship between prestigious universities and the
“American Dream” has spawned an arms race of students wishing to enroll
at top schools, supported by massive student loans. Because I am only
human, I have been, albeit regrettably, also a part of this travesty. I,
too, had been conflicted over prestige and cost once upon a time.
Rewind two years ago. I was a college senior. Various acceptance
letters fell upon me like rain on a barren farmland. This rain was
toxic, but the temptation to indulge was there.
At first my heart was unfailingly set on attending a private
university in New York that was acclaimed for its political science
& economics departments. It seemed so simple, punch my ticket to
this university, do well, let the prestige carry me to a cushy
investment banking firm or a top law school, proceed to buy mansion,
boat, Maybach, and ball harder than Jay-Z or Kanye West.
I had also received acceptance to UMD, but I had only applied after
my mother continually pestered me because she knew for certain we could
afford it. Thank God she did.
When I received my financial aid package, seeing the dismal Stafford
loan valued at $5,500 set against an almost $60,000 a year cost, my
heart sank. I could only finance this academic expedition with private
lenders who charge criminally high interest rates. But I still thought
maybe it’s worth it. After all, it’s prestigious! So maybe the Maybach
has to wait, but I can still get that mansion right?
The unfortunate truth is that excessive loans are so engulfing that
they absorb almost all of even the most lucrative paycheck, with no
remorse. And if you miss a payment, your credit score tanks. And if you
pay off the loan too quickly, your credit score depresses. Paradoxical?
Absolutely, but the way finances work is unfair. It’s a lose-lose
scenario where we as people are robbed of our autonomy. Read up on the
horror stories; they are true. And, unlike a home, bankruptcy does not
absolve you of loan responsibility; and if you default, your school may
sue you as some have done recently.
I begrudgingly chose UMD with a mindset that a future of deskwork and
being a yes-man to an executive was imminent. Thankfully 18-year-old
Marc was mistaken.
Here at my cost-effective state institution, I have been inundated
with opportunity. Leadership positions in various professional
organizations, success on the debate team, journalistic opportunities
with the highly regarded Diamondback, and our proximity to DC for
interning reflect my experiences here. Even having the fortunate
opportunity to write this article is a byproduct of attending UMD.
Also, the nightlife ain’t half bad.
What I’ve learned is that it is the individual who determines
success, not the name on the degree. Those at Harvard, Stanford or NYU
find success because of work ethic, determination and insatiable
ambition. The same goes for Maryland. Statistically speaking, top students from state universities make equitable pay as those at prestigious universities.
I am not saying attending superior universities isn’t a worthy
investment. What I am saying is attending those universities shouldn’t
come at the cost of future financial solvency. Maybe $100,000 of debt is
unfathomable to a teenager, and frankly it still is to me, but if I can
reach the same ends by going to another university and pay
substantially less, than I say bring on the state schools. Let no
parent, GPA/SAT, or university define your life; you build the future.
As the days of winter fade, many students will dig out one or more of the college rankings publications they acquired last autumn and pore over them again looking for “the revelation.” This reliably consistent tradition was the topic of a recent commentary called, “College Rankings Fail”, that appeared in the University of Maryland’s independent student newspaper. The student author, Marc Priester, took direct aim at college rankings as a whole. As he pointed out,
“Our current obsessions with prestige and rankings border on fetishism…. There is a sad waltz between college rankings and how we value education. It compels individuals to irrationally worship universities, leading to the foolish economic decision to attend exorbitantly priced colleges because of the ‘promise’ [: the promise of the upper middle class, the pipe-dream future we’ve been fed since before we could even spell ‘Harvard’].”
Mr. Priester further attributes blame to the media, with whom students and parents have become willing partners. While I would not use the term “fetishism”, I do credit Mr. Priester for his astute recognition of college rankings as authoritative. And, although the remainder of Mr. Priester’s quote is consistent with the spirit of his message, I feel it does divert attention from the overarching point he was making; i.e., that college rankings are inherently misleading and as such can lead to poor decision making.
A case in point is the media frenzy initiated each year by the various college rankings publication releases, with the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges issue being the most recognizable. College administrators and admissions offers criticize and debate U.S. News for attempting to do the impossible: determine unequivocally who is Number One, or Number Ten, or Number 75. Unfortunately, some students and parents miss these criticisms.
Kiplinger recently released Best Values in Public Colleges for 2013, and the corresponding, Best Values in Private Colleges for 2013. The rankings publication claims that its methodology measures "value," but that term is just as subjective as the term "best" used by US News. Each student has a unique system of values, which cannot be standardized.
There is one factor in Kiplinger’s ranking formula that could easily be misinterpreted. In acknowledging that an institution that graduates its students within the traditional 4-year timeframe saves them tuition dollars, the reality is that there are numerous legitimate factors that delay graduation for many students beyond the four years after which they began their studies. Georgia Tech, for instance, has a 4-year graduation rate of only 31 percent. What Kiplinger fails to note is that a significant portion of the Georgia Tech student body is enrolled in the co-op program where full-time study and full-time placement at a paying internship occur in alternating semesters. The end result is graduation delayed into a fifth or even a sixth year, but with considerably more real-life experience than most programs offer. In this context, Georgia Tech’s 4-year graduation rate clearly misrepresents the quality of its overall academic experience.
The all-encompassing point being made here is that “value," in economic terms, is just one of the many dimensions of the college selection process. Where students choose to prepare for their future and how much their family is willing to pay for it is a complex, at times an intensely emotional, and let us not forget, singularly courageous decision.
Imagine if you will, a college rankings publication that, as a matter of policy, excludes a certain group of institutions that do not have the huge endowments, vast and far-reaching research programs, large enrollment, and renowned faculties. The rationale for this practice would be a suggested “fairness.” After all, how can this group of schools compete with the larger, wealthier institutions?
Continue imagining that suddenly this rankings publication reverses direction and decides to offer this group of institutions an opportunity to have their relative strengths acknowledged, evaluated, and, where warranted, given due recognition in the form of “stars” that are awarded in designations from one to five. The cost for participation is a one-time “audit fee” of just under $10,000 and an annual “licensing fee” of just under $7,000. In contrast, the higher ed heavy-hitters and their peer institutions are never assessed any charges. How might this affect your confidence in rankings compiled in this manner?
This is exactly what Quacquarelli Symonds, the London-based company behind the QS World University Rankings, is doing. The company is inviting schools with strong local reputations, but who have been excluded from some of the top international rankings sites, to pay for the privelege of seeing their name in print. As Mr. Guttenplan points out,
“Today the QS list of the “top 700 universities” in the world is read by millions of prospective students, parents, academics and university administrators.”
That being listed in either of the three big international rankings pubs (the QS Rankings, the Times Higher Education’s top 400 and Shanghai Jiaotong University’s top 500) is quite a big deal has been well noted. Just last October in a post on this blog, reference was made to an interviewer’s (Ms. Mishal Husain) commentary on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings (interestingly, a former partner of QS Rankings) where she made the following observation.
“So why do these rankings matter? Well, increasingly they influence the choices that students and academics make. Researchers need them to look for new global collaborations. Often, they are also built into a university’s strategic plan. And beyond the academic walls, the rankings play a vital role at government levels with universities trying to drive academic growth through knowledge, innovation and skill.”
To which Mr. Guttenplan recently added,
“QS’s influence can also be felt at the highest levels of policy….Experts say that some governments will not fund students who wish to study overseas at universities not on the list — sometimes those not in the top 100. ….In an attempt to work their way up the ladder, other countries have engaged in programs of consolidation, forcing smaller schools to group together in an effort to emulate the large U.S. and British research universities that repeatedly dominate the top tier."
Finally, Ellen Hazelkorn, Director of Research at the Dublin Institute of Technology, stated,
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Why are all the institutions so caught up in this?’” she said. “For a country like Ireland, where education and establishing an international presence are hugely important to economic recovery, not being ranked makes you invisible.”
What students and parents must realize is that by buying their way into the QS Rankings, institutions are not enhancing the overall quality of the academic experience they offer students. They are purchasing recognition and a spot on the landscape of the international elite. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to conduct a personal evaluation of the institution and how well it meets the student’s needs.
To illustrate the importance of “fit” in the admission process, here is a sample of what I distributed to my second-semester juniors:
Institutional Fit: or, One Size Does Not Fit All
“Institutional fit” is both a concept and a term. It is used to describe the degree to which a student’s “profile” matches-up with that of particular colleges or universities. This search then, for an appropriate “fit,” is directed by a student’s interests, abilities, and values.
Be advised that you cannot determine “fit” by simply looking at the annual “best” guides that appear at newsstands every year. However, if you want to make the college selection process one that is driven by your priorities (and thereby substantially more meaningful), concentrate on finding a strong correlation between…
your intellectual capabilities--------admission requirements
your academic interests------------the degree programs available
your personal values----------------special opportunities for growth
your long-term goals--------------graduate placement record
Invariably I would have students who firmly believed that, unless they did their undergraduate work at one of the most selective schools in the nation, their dream of becoming a highly accomplished doctor, lawyer or leader in the corporate world (with commensurate earnings) would go unrealized.
I would counter with an informational piece made available by the Stanford University Medical School Office of Admissions. It contained a breakdown, by state and undergraduate institution, of the number of students who applied, who were accepted, and who matriculated. Those who were accepted represented seventy different colleges and universities. While there were strong numbers from the Ivies/elites, successful applicants also came from such diverse schools as Loma Linda University, Wayne State, Northern Iowa, The Juilliard School, Reed College and Norfolk State.
I also had many experiences of students’ open minds being instrumental in the development of a career path that was as fulfilling and successful as anyone could have hoped for. One of my students, whom I will call Tanya, was admitted to every school to which she applied, including one Ivy. She chose to attend Michigan State. When we met to discuss this she mentioned being chided good-naturedly by some of her friends about the modest profile of M.S.U. compared to her other offers. As she also related to me,
“I am really happy with being offered a place in the honors program and living in the honors dorm. When I met with the dean of the college of natural sciences he outlined all the different chances I will have to do research, even as a freshman, and the program options are exactly what I wanted.
It seemed that every year I was writing a letter in support of Tanya’s latest application for a fellowship or grant. One hot June afternoon as our school year was ending, I returned to the guidance center to find her sitting in the reception area. With a big smile she said,
“I just wanted to stop and share the good news that I am on my way to Johns Hopkins Medical School. Thanks for expanding my vision and supporting my decision four years ago.”
By being true to herself and her own needs and resisting the temptation to seek only the “designer” brands in higher education or the smoke and mirrors images presented by college ranking publications, Tanya got to where she wanted to go all along. As in the vintage blues classic, “God Bless the Child”, she could proudly say, “I got my own.”
In a recent article submitted to SavingAdvice.com, guest writer Mitchell Pauly focuses on the misconception often held by students and parents that there is a formula for career success and it begins with the college you attend. In his view, college rankings publications are to blame for the culture of “branding” with regard to higher education in general, and selective/elite institutions in particular. He goes on:
“I am making a larger point: since rankings such as these are the basis of much of society’s college related opinions, and the data is rife with selection bias, then the majority of the opinions we hear are as useful as Paris Hilton on trivia night.”
While I am neither as harsh or direct as Mr. Pauly, I do respect the authority on which his conclusions are based; specifically, a 1999 study conducted by Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Stacey Berg Dale, a researcher at the Andrew Mellon Foundation:
“… our research would suggest that students need to think carefully about the fit between their abilities and interests, the attributes of the school they attend, and their career aspirations”,
The manner the means by which Krueger and Dale arrived at this conclusion is of crucial significance. The researchers tracked high-ability students during the 1970’s who were accepted at Ivy League or other very highly selective institutions, but who chose to attend what some might describe as less prestigious colleges and universities. The results of the Krueger and Dale bias-free study was that after two decades, the annual earnings of the tracked students were relatively the same as their peers who had attended elite colleges.
In light of this, and faced with the patent unreliability of college rankings publication content, how should parents and students approach the college admission process ? In my view the obvious best course of action is to acknowledge the importance of ‘fit”, and help the student incorporate it into her or his college selection process through self-knowledge and collaboration with a guidance counselor.
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!