Unpopular Opinion: College Rankings DO Matter

College Ranking Guides
Source: American Observer

Recently, a hot topic of conversation in the higher ed space is rankings – and some are implying that an overabundance of rankings are leaving students confused, not knowing which to trust to help them choose a school.

A recent New York Times op-ed took the notion one step further by simply calling college rankings a joke. Author Frank Bruni writes about quirks in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and how many schools will try to “game the system” to move up in the ranks. My main takeaway from his piece:

…rankings are front and center, fostering the idea that schools are brands in competition with one another. The rankings elevate clout above learning, which isn’t as easily measured.

I agree that rankings shouldn’t be the star of the show, but they deserve a supporting role, at least.

Why shouldn’t higher ed institutions make every effort to raise their profile? And why shouldn’t students tap all available resources to guide their best college decisions?

Rankings elevate a college’s brand in an age where differentiation is critical. The cost of a bachelor’s degree is among a family’s largest expenditures and, like purchasing a car, choosing a college that balances budget and priorities means diligent research for most families. Just like automotive brands, higher ed institutions are smart to help consumers sift through choices by showcasing their unique value. Certain rankings can support those efforts.

But that doesn’t mean that that rankings should promote clout above learning. Bruni notes that the ranking data “produces a mother lode of useful facts and figures that go far beyond the numerical rankings.” For many families, this information is a treasure – and it isn’t hidden.

U.S. News & World Report, for example, posts a feature called The Short List: College. It calls out out specific data points – separate from the overall rankings –  that help families find “which undergraduate or graduate programs excel or have room to grow in specific areas.” Student body makeup, cost, academics and extracur
riculars (and more) are all included so students can make decisions based on what’s important to them.

Simply put, college rankings have their place.

They should not be the “end all, be all” of choosing a college. They are certainly not the only aspect of building a winning higher education brand. But they can be a helpful tool for both colleges and students in these ways and more.

Calling students, families and higher ed leaders – what’s your take on college rankings? Should schools be chasing the throne? How are they (and how are they not) useful?

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