If you have been reading this blog, you know the games colleges can play with yield and acceptance rates and can actually impact their numbers by not admitting students they know are unlikely to attend. Others try to influence rankings by making marketing a priority to boost application numbers and could fund 500 full rides with the money they spend mailing out glossy brochures to everyone who got over a certain number on the PSATs. This "information" is gathered from the schools by the rankings companies and used to move schools around the lists. Some schools have recently admitted to manipulating or outright lying about their accepted average test scores to boost rankings, (Claremont McKenna, Iona and Baylor come to mind) and still others (High Point, Wash U in St Louis and Tufts to name a few) choose not to publish their Common Data Sets making their statistical data unavailable to prospective students.
So, given the ease with which rankings can be manipulated, how can a student use them to help figure out where to apply? Herewith, a few suggestions to keep in mind when using rankings:
- Forbes rankings uses Ratemyprofessor.com to determine student happiness. Students have been known to create dozens of screen names to post harsh reviews after getting a bad grade. That is no way to decide if a school is right for you.
- Some highly regarded schools like Reed College (ranked #4 in PhD productivity meaning only 3 other schools produce a greater percentage of students who go on to get a PhD) have low rankings because they choose not to participate in rankings.
- If a school site touts their ranking in a giant banner on the first page, be sure to read the fine print. Is it a regional ranking? Ranking based on some other factor like weather, food, or dorms? Many schools omit that key factor when announcing their most recent ranking.
- Some schools, like Clemson, openly admitted to manipulating faculty salary data and class size to influence their ranking. They stated they had a mission to bring up the school's ranking and figured out how. It worked but at what cost?
- Payscale.com ranks schools based on income upon graduation. The list is weighted heavily to Engineering schools. Not a surprise given that starting salaries in Engineering are consistently higher than any other field.
Use rankings to make sure you aren't missing a school that has a program you might love, or gives great merit aid, or likes students who fit your profile. Don't use them solely to make a list of colleges to apply to. The top schools don't accept more than 5-15% of applicants so be sure you take off the blinders and see the other 2950 schools in the USA. Rankings can help add to or narrow down a list, but they should be only one factor in a decision that may influence the rest of your life.