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Are College Rankings a Fair Reflection of a School's Quality?

Aug 1, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Check out the top five college rankings systems for MBA programs—BusinessWeek, US News & World Report, The Financial Times, Forbes, and The Economist. Each claims to be the definitive ranking system—but they never rank the same set of schools at the top of their lists. Which one is right—and how do you tell? How accurate are those college rankings, anyway?

The truth is that no list has the definitive answer for which college is right—because this is often a very individual choice. In addition, the college ranking systems often employ subjective criteria—or self-reporting criteria that’s hard to verify. Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t consider college rankings the be-all and end-all of judging a college’s merit.

Some measure only the numbers

Some ranking systems measure only the things that are easiest to measure: the average SAT’s of accepted seniors; the average GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT scores of graduates; and graduate starting salaries. They don’t measure more subjective but—to many—more important factors, such as teaching quality and quality of experience.


College rankings may help you make a decision about college. But they shouldn’t be your only factor.




Some have an alternative agend

The five major rankings listed at the top are generally considered the most reliable—and least biased. There are a lot of other rankings out there—but they’re often put together by people with an agenda. Some more minor rankings are developed by people wanting to sell you something; others by faculty members who may want to promote academic research over teaching quality. When judging ranking systems, consider whether they were assembled by journalists—or by consultants, academics, and businesses that may have a conflict of interest.

Some rely on self-reported data

The US News & World Report bases about 60% of its rankings on data that are supplied by the school, not collected by journalists on their own—and the schools have a large incentive to present the best possible data they can. The Economist’s MBA rankings are worse—with about 80% of the rankings based on unverified information from schools. In many cases, there’s no way to independently verify the information given.

Some rely on subjective data

The US News and World Report gives 25% of its ranking to a “reputation survey,” which is supposed to judge each college’s academic reputation and perception in the wider marketplace. Obviously, a school’s reputation can make a big difference to graduates at the highest levels—helping them make connections and impress employers. The problem? The survey gathers its information by asking academic leaders to rate their competitors—a system of judgment that could lead to biased answers. US News and World Report has received its share of criticism for this ranking decision in the past.

Some put too much weight on issues that don’t affect quality

The Economist includes factors in its rankings that may be important to some, but that probably don’t affect the actual quality of the education there—such as the percentage of male and female students, the number of overseas exchange programs, and the number of language classes offered. The last one might be a good criteria for those interested in studying languages, or for those in an undergraduate program—but this is for its MBA rankings.

The Financial Times puts a lot of weight—almost 40%--on starting salaries for graduates three years after leaving the program. But it doesn’t correlate that with the type of field the graduates go into. Starting salaries are usually more affected by the industry you choose than the school you attended—and doesn’t necessarily reflect one way or the other on a school’s level of educational quality.

College rankings may help you make a decision about college. But they shouldn’t be your only factor. They don’t necessarily give you reliable information about how “good” a college is—and no ranking system can truly capture the subjective experiences, peer environments, teacher rapports, and other factors that make a college experience truly unique and perfect for one individual. Our conclusion? Take college rankings with a grain of salt—and do plenty of research and visits on your own to judge which college is right for you.



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