By Amy Herzog and Debbie Kanter
North Shore College Consulting

Each August, U.S. News & World Report publishes a separate guidebook titled “America’s Best Colleges” that features college rankings based on a mix of reputation and statistical data about the colleges.  These rankings, among others, while interesting, are a major contributor to the college frenzy in our country. 

Many of our nation’s college presidents, deans and professors argue that the rankings are worthless, and we would completely agree.  Edward Fiske, an expert in the area of college counseling, said, “The question is not ‘What’s the best college?’ The question is ‘What’s the best college for me?’”  The rankings simply do not measure the educational experience of a particular college for an individual student. 

Most college rankings out there today measure virtually everything but the actual performance of the graduates from the college being ranked.  The rankings are not based on any direct measure of educational quality, such as good teaching or student satisfaction.  In the perverse rankings world, the more applicants a college rejects, the “more selective” it appears and the higher its ranking.  Rankings simply do not measure what they are supposed to assess: the educational experience for an individual student.  Merely knowing which colleges are the most selective or enjoy the highest reputation among college presidents does not get a student very far toward finding a good match.  Lists cannot tell a student what it feels like to hang out on campus on the weekend or what type of students will be in her freshman classes.

Another major flaw with college rankings is the reliability of the data provided by colleges to ranking authorities.  The rankings are big business for colleges, and as a result, more and more colleges provide false or inflated data, particularly in the areas of student selectivity, in order to receive a higher ranking.  The examples are numerous unfortunately.  For instance, in 2011, U.S. News & World Report ranked Emory University 20 out of 300 in national universities.  This rank was based on many factors, including the SAT scores and high school class rank of incoming students.  However, Emory was later found guilty of inflating both of these categories.  George Washington University recently lost its number 51 ranking spot as a result of its admission that it was guilty of inflating the high school grades of its incoming students to U.S. News for more than a decade.  George Washington reported to U.S. News that 78 percent of the incoming class of 2011 ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes.  The real number turned out to be much lower at 58 percent. 

While it is no doubt interesting to read the U.S. News & World Report lists of college rankings, that is really all it is.  Take these rankings for what they are, a way to sell magazines.  At the end of the day, students must realize that no ranking is going to tell them what the best academic, social and financial fit colleges are for them.