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 officers 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.
Joseph Prieto, National Association for College Admissions Counseling