College Rankings Are Absurd & High School Rankings Are Nonsense

Another day, another op-ed piece disparaging that scourge upon humanity called 'the rankings scheme'. College rankings, high school rankings, law school rankings, established ranking sites, newcomers to the rankings race - no one is safe because really, can you honestly tell a unique individual that one college will be better for them than another, based on a few trends? In a provocative piece at the Huffington Post entitled The Ultimate Absurdity of College Rankings, Bill Destler, President at the much-lauded Rochester Institute of Technology, explains why he feels that, despite his college's consistently good numbers, college rankings are a disservice to the public. He explains that rankings should be interpreted with a healthy dose of skepticism by students and parents who are seeking guidance in what can be an overwhelming college selection process.

One of the points Destler makes is that rankings tend to measure input, not output. In other words, colleges that bring students in with high SAT scores and a semester worth, or more, of AP credits, are better positioned to have higher freshman retention rates and overall graduation rates, a common output metric used in rankings. But what of the college that brought in students with low SAT scores, no AP credits, and expected lower retention and graduation rates? Is it fair to pit a community college, for example, against a highly-selective private college?

Destler feels that what a college is tasked with doing is what should be measured, and those tasks are not equal at every college. He goes on to state:

Unfortunately, no published ranking scheme has taken this approach.

VP of Product at College Factual, Josh McWilliam explains how College Factual's rankings are more outcome focused, albeit just some of the many factors that are currently considered.

Colleges with highly selective acceptance rates are also more likely to have higher graduation rates. This can speak to the caliber of the students and not necessarily to the educational prowess of the school. A higher than expected graduation rate is indicative that a school is doing a proportionally better job at graduating students, regardless of that students’ academic standing upon acceptance to the college or university, which is reflected positively in the rankings.

Josh goes on to explain that certain inputs used in U.S. News rankings, for example, have been removed from the College Factual rankings, further focusing the rank on outcomes.

We do not include peer reviews from other colleges, nor the acceptance rate as there are ways to manipulate that. We also do not include the average classroom size or the percentage of PhD's on the faculty.

Can more be done to focus in on a more personalized outcome-based angle? Absolutely. College Factual currently includes outcomes-based data such as average student loan debt per student, loan default rates and graduates' starting salaries and earning potential. In addition, there's the ability to customize rankings based on whether you are likely to receive financial aid or not, which sometimes changes the picture dramatically. And further customization of rankings is planned for the future.

While I'm sure someone, somewhere, chooses a college based 'solely' on the college's ranking in a list here or elsewhere, for most, rankings are, and rightly so, a guide - a way to research colleges and maybe even find ones not thought of prior to doing so. Sites like College Factual and others are meant to be decision making hubs - tools to place in a college selection arsenal to help ensure students will find a college where they will stay, excel and graduate with a minimum of debt in an average amount of time.

You can read the criticisms surrounding high school rankings here, and Bill Destler's article is here.