Friends School of Baltimore Private School Blog

The trouble with college rankings

Posted by Matt Micciche, Head of School, Friends School of Baltimore on Feb 7, 2019 10:39:39 AM

Who among us doesn’t enjoy having our long-held beliefs confirmed?  Especially if the source of such affirmation is a well-respected and impartial institution. You can imagine, then, the pleasure I felt in coming across a recent white paper produced by Stanford University, titled, “A Fit Over Rankings; Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity.”  

The major headings of this important document are: 1) Rankings Are Problematic; 2) College Selectivity is Not a Reliable Predictor of Student Learning, Job Satisfaction or Well-Being; and, my personal favorite, 3) Engagement in College Is More Important than Where You Attend.

In a perfect world, these common sense axioms would be self-evident and widely understood. In the frenzied dystopia that is the American college admission process – a situation exacerbated, if not sparked, by U.S. News & World Report’s relentless college ranking system  they should be shouted from the rooftops.

The idea that one could develop a ranking system to indicate the likelihood that a particular college will lead to happiness and fulfillment for an 18-year old borders on the absurd; How could such a system possibly account for the uniqueness of the individual student? The Stanford report highlights some of the many reasons why the U.S. News & World Report approach is so deeply flawed, noting, "We find that many of the metrics used in these rankings are weighted arbitrarily and are not accurate indicators of a college’s quality or positive outcomes for students.”   

The report goes on to correct some of the other harmful and persistent myths around college admissions, such as the dangerous belief that if only a young person can get into the “right” college (which all too often means the most highly-ranked one), their path through life will be assured and comfortable.

“We also find that individual student characteristics (such as background, major, ambition) may make more of a difference in terms of post-college outcomes than the institutions themselves.”  

The wisest words, though, come later in the article:

“Colleges that provide ample opportunities for students to deeply engage in learning and campus community may offer the key to positive outcomes after college…students who participate in internships that allow them to apply what they learn in the classroom to real life settings, students who have mentors in college who encourage them to pursue personal goals, and students who engage in multi-semester projects are more likely to thrive after college.”

These observations nicely encapsulate the qualities that are central to a Friends education – deep engagement, opportunities for the application of knowledge, and meaningful relationships. They also speak to the critical role a college counseling office can play in helping students and families find the right fit in terms of a college’s academic program, campus environment, values, and affordability. None of these criterion, it’s safe to say, are reflected in the shallow ranking systems that dominate the college search conversation in our country.

I have often shared with families my belief that the child you send to college is more important than the college to which you send your child. It’s reassuring to know that Stanford has my back on this one.

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How Much Attention Should You Pay To U.S. News' College Rankings? – Forbes (Sept. 10, 2018)

8 More Colleges Submitted Incorrect Data for Rankings – Inside Higher Ed (Aug. 27, 2018)

Why College Rankings are a Joke -- The New York Times (Sept. 17, 2016)


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Topics: college rankings, college counseling, college guidance, college admissions

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