University rankings: You be the judge
These numbers have power with a
Colleges and universities and parents and students
look to them every year. They could dictate your academic future,
if you let them.
Welcome to the world of college rankings, where every
imaginable aspect of a college or university has been sliced and
diced, analyzed and quantified and stuck in some publication's pithy
list of top colleges.
"Now it seems like everyone and his dog
is in the game," says Dennis Gioia, a professor of organizational
behavior at Smeal College of Business, Penn State University. "Everybody's
got their own version of it."
Introduction to university ranking
College rankings range from serious to silly. Heavy hitters such
as U.S. News & World Report reveal the best colleges in America
every year. BusinessWeek, Forbes and others tackle the best business
Left-leaning Mother Jones lists the top 10 activist
campuses. Men's Health names the 10 most "male-friendly"
colleges. Key aspects of a "male-friendly" college include
fraternity power, the availability of intramural sports and workout
facilities and how vocal the women's studies department happens
The Princeton Review ranks everything from best library
and best professors to the top party schools and top "stone
cold sober" schools in its yearly, phonebook-sized publication
Best 331 Colleges.
The book and its 62 categories are based on student
opinions and surveys: Does the school have a great college radio
station? Are the dorms like dungeons or palaces? Is the school filled
with jocks or "Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, clove-smoking
And while schools and prospective students take, say,
the party school list as seriously as you'd expect, the straightforward,
these-are-the-best-schools-because rankings matter quite a bit.
Gioia has studied the impact of business school rankings on
the nation's top business schools.
"The business schools take these rankings very
seriously because they can't afford not to," Gioia says. "People
pay so much attention to them now -- students, corporate recruiters."
On the plus side, the rankings have stoked up competition
between schools and resulted in better recruiting, better MBA programs
and better job placement for students.
The downside is this whole rankings business is getting
out of control. Some schools get downright obsessed with the rankings.
They're constantly on the lookout for ways to boost their numbers.
Some schools even hire consultants.
Gioia knows of a city school that decided to do valet
parking for corporate recruiters in an attempt to up their ranking.
Did it work? Like a charm.
"That's what works. That's what changes people's
opinions. You're treated like a king when you visit," Gioia
Prospective students can get swept up in the college
rankings game, as well.
"If a school is well-known, then they
think that's going to be good for them and help them get into graduate
school or get the right job," says Marybeth Kravets, a counselor
at a public high school in Deerfield, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
Many high school students believe that to be successful
in their careers they must attend a top-ranked college or university.
And so do a lot of parents.
Sure, plenty of people who attend schools that top
the rankings year in and year out go on to have successful careers.
But so do tons of people who attend other, less-known colleges and
And as Kravets, who has visited more than 2,700 colleges
and universities in her 23 years as a counselor, points out, "There
are a lot of schools that may never get on the lists that are phenomenal."
She encourages students to not overlook excellent
regional schools in their hunts for the right college.
The key thing is for students to find colleges that feel right
and meet their priorities.
"You need to come up with your own top
10 schools, your own top five schools," says Frank Burtnett,
president of Education
Now, a private consulting firm that works with schools and colleges.
"That's the only ranking that counts."
The best place to start is not with what the so-called
experts say, but by boiling down what you're looking for in a college.
Here are some key things to think about:
- Personal goals.
Why do you want to go to college? What academic subjects interest
you the most? Do you know what subject you'd like to major in?
Is graduate, law or medical school in your future? What are your
"It doesn't make sense to go to a top-ranked school if they
don't have your major," Kravets says.
- Location of school.
Do you want to attend a school near home or one that's 3,000 miles
away? Is that faraway school near an airport? How often would
you be able to visit home during the school year?
- Size of school. Some
students prefer learning in smaller classes and may be more comfortable
at a smaller school. For other students, class size doesn't matter.
- Diversity of student body.
Would you like to attend a school with people from similar social
backgrounds as your own? Or would you rather attend classes with
students from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds? Would
you feel more comfortable on a liberal or a conservative campus?
- Small town vs. big city.
When you think of college, do you think of red brick buildings
and rolling hills or skyscrapers? Would you be happy living in
a college town, or do you prefer the lights of the big city?
"Some people want to go to college in a city so they get
the culture of the city as well as the college," Burtnett
All the extras. What do you like to do? What kind of extracurricular
activities and facilities are you looking for in a college?
"You're going to become a citizen of a college," Burtnett
says. "How comfortable are you going to be there?"
- The cost. How much
is tuition? How much is room-and-board? How much financial aid
is available? Don't forget to factor in travel expenses for faraway
Many schools list education costs and typical aid packages on
their Web sites.
Make a list of your priorities, and keep it with you as you
peruse guidebooks and browse Web sites. Keep score. You're looking
for schools that match as many of your priorities as possible.
Once you've narrowed your choices, consult your guidance
counselor. If you know anyone who graduated from a school on your
college list, be sure to talk to them. Ask them about their college
experiences -- the good and the bad.
Be sure to check out schools on your own. The campus
visit is incredibly important. You could be spending four or five
years of your life there. You better like the place.
While on campus ask some students what they
really think of the school. Sit in on a couple of classes. Stay
"Pick up a couple of campus newspapers.
Listen to the campus radio station," Burtnett says. "Do
anything you can to get a feel for what a place is like."
-- Updated: Sept. 17, 2004