Our Opinion: ‘Best College’ rankings are mostly bunk; find the university that suits you

September 15th, 2016 9:31 pm

Sure, it sounded like sour grapes when Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy pooh-poohed the value of the new U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” rankings.

The suspicion is almost inevitable: Of course he’d think the rankings are flawed, his school came in 85th on the “Regional Universities North” list, the lowest position among area institutions. But don’t dismiss Leahy’s laments to a Times Leader reporter too quickly.

After all, if U.S. News insists on telling us what schools are the “best,” the magazine should be ready to stand up to serious scrutiny about how it makes such a lofty determination.

The truth is, even an editor of U.S. News admitted imperfections in the rankings.

A 2015 commentary by Amy Laitinen in The Chronicle of Higher Education bluntly contended “those rankings, as has been repeatedly pointed out, are fundamentally flawed – not just because they largely use inputs that reward and replicate exclusivity and wealth, but because they don’t answer vital questions that students have.”

Laitinen, of the youth-oriented think tank “New America Foundation,” goes on to quote U.S. News editor Brian Kelly from 2013: “We know the rankings aren’t perfect, mostly because some of the data we’d like to get isn’t available. What have students learned when they graduate? Did they get jobs? How much do they earn? These are factors most consumers would like to know. But for the most part, they aren’t measured by schools in any comparable way.”

Likewise, Leahy said there’s not much consideration given in the ratings to which students a school accepts, and what it does for those students. It is a statistical fact: Minority, low-income and English as a Second Language students are at a higher risk of not completing college, and Wilkes enrolls high percentages of such groups.

There also is the concern that institutions try to game the rating system. In a Chronicle article in July, Northwestern University adjunct law professor Steven Harper cited cases in which law schools shifted scholarship money from needs-based to academic-based to draw applicants with higher LSAT scores, which in turn can boost U.S. News rankings.

Leahy and Misericordia University President Thomas Botzman both raised red flags about another aspect of the U.S. News ratings: Nearly one-quarter of an institution’s score is based on what officials from other colleges say about it. Aside from being a subjective measure, this means officials who know next to nothing about a school can have a big say in where it ranks.

Both men pointed to other ranking systems in which their respective schools did quite well, which raises one last concern: Why should prospective students base decisions on the U.S. News rankings alone? Which rankings should matter most?

The answer is none.

Those selecting a college would best show they are “college ready” by using rankings only as a small piece of their calculus, relying on their own research and visits to campuses to make a final decision.

You are, after all, looking for the “best college” for you.