Combating the Tyranny of Rankings

by | Sep 11, 2017 | Rankings

The typical college fair…

If you have ever attended a college fair- whether it is in a fancy hotel ballroom or in the cramped breezeway of a high school at lunchtime- you have heard the words that, even a grandmother in Asia who barely understands English can somehow manage to say; “What is your ranking?”

And then the circus begins. A few surly reps may cough and whisper under their breath, “What’s YOUR ranking??” but most will take a deep breath and begin rattling off parts of their pitch that include numbers, statistics, percentages, etc.

“We were ranked in the top 20 small business schools in the Southeast!”

“We have been ranked for the most beautiful campus in New York.”

“We have the most eligible alumni in the US!” (That last one is real. And it is Vanderbilt, if you were curious).

The trouble with rankings…

The case for rankings is an attempt to force some level of transparency for institutions, not unreasonable when shelling out large sums of money for tuition and fees. But when a student’s search relies solely on the crude orderings of a publication without further investigation of what goes into them, unrealistic expectations are set.

Many critics claim university rankings harm low and middle class students. Some say rankings are a form of signaling, or they attempt to break down type of ranking and discredit them. One favorite article that is passed around every fall explains, in detail, many reasons why the rankings are not accurate and should not be relied heavily upon. For most of us in higher education, however, our argument against the rankings usually involves “fit.”

Focusing on retention rates, most higher education professionals seem to have grasped the notion that an “Ivy” is not for everyone. Fit encompasses the “feel” of the campus, the environment, the extracurriculars, the services and or amenities, the social activities. It also includes academics. “Fit” is about a student’s overall well-being for the next 3-4+ years of their life. “Fit” is specific to an individual student. That cannot be encapsulated on a mass-produced brochure. And it certainly isn’t captured in a general number.

What’s working?

At the IC3 conference in New Delhi last week, the counselors who attended our session on “Escaping the Tyranny of Rankings” brought up excellent points about using rankings responsibly, and, if they were going to use them, ensuring that they understood what went into the metrics- They were encouraging their students to “dig in” if they insisted on using rankings in their search.

The university representatives also noted that sometimes not engaging in the ranking question forces a more legitimate conversation. It allows the university side to flip the question back onto the student. “What part of a ranking is important to you? Is it the job placement? Is it your opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate student? Tell me more about what you are looking for.” A grade 10 student may not have even started thinking about this, instead relying on the numbers as their starting point- leaving many wonderful options off the table from the beginning.

At the end of the session, counselors asked if there was any place they could find additional resources to help their students and families look beyond the rankings. Below you can find a list of sources that we hope you will find helpful as you navigate the search process with your students.