The president of Princeton University, which routinely leads the lists of best colleges and universities, advises applicants to be wary of choosing a school based on ranking lists.
"My university has now topped the U.S. News & World Report rankings for 11 years running. Given Princeton's success, you might think I would be a fan of the list," wrote Christopher Eisgruber in The Washington Post on October 21.
"Not so. I am convinced that the rankings game is a bit of mishegoss — a slightly daft obsession that does harm when colleges, parents or students take it too seriously," Eisgruber wrote, using a Yiddish word that means "senseless behavior or activity."
Rankings are highly popular and usually published around this time of year, application season for U.S. colleges and universities. An online search for "college rankings" reveals more than 66 million hits. While many companies and organizations publish such lists, the U.S. News & World Report rankings are seen as the most wide reaching.
Colleges at the top of such lists often are the hardest to get into. Low acceptance rates — less than 10% for the "best" schools — indicate those colleges receive far more applications than they have places for students.
Many applicants invest emotionally in a dream that is not likely to come true, in addition to spending up to hundreds of dollars on application fees. The colleges and universities with the highest application fees are also the most coveted and highest-ranking schools: Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
According to the blog CollegeVine, a student applies to an average of eight to 12 schools per academic year. Fees per school can reach $100 per application, but students can request fee waivers.
Brevity over comprehensiveness
Eisgruber and others accuse U.S. News & World Report, which publishes numerous best lists on several topics each year, of capitalizing on brevity and convenience rather than comprehensive information.
U.S. News offers a lengthy explanation of its computation on its website, stating that it uses "multiple measures to capture the various dimensions of academic quality at each college. They fall into nine broad areas: graduation and retention, graduation rate performance, graduate indebtedness, social mobility, faculty resources, expert opinion, financial resources, student excellence, and alumni giving."
"The indicators include both input measures, which reflect the quality of students, faculty and other resources used in education, and outcome measures, which capture the results of the education an individual receives at the institution," it states.
U.S. News attracts "tremendous attention and a huge customer base. Their popularity has inspired many imitators," Eisgruber wrote.
These include the popular Princeton Review. The name of the publication might lead some to believe Princeton University endorses the review's choices. Not so. While the company was formed by a Princeton graduate who later founded the educational company Noodle Partners and 2U, the university has no connection with the publication.
"Don't get me wrong. I am proud of Princeton's teaching, research and commitment to service. I like seeing our quality recognized," Eisgruber said. "Applicants and their families, however, rely on the rankings and feel pressure to get into highly regarded institutions. As a result, many schools make intense efforts to move up in the rankings," he wrote.
In 2012, Claremont McKenna College in California admitted it had sent U.S. News boosted results that did not reflect the school's metrics accurately.
Eisgruber suggested applicants consult the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, although the "data-centric interface can make it more attractive to policy wonks than to students."
He also wrote that he hoped "some national publication will have the courage to produce an annual, user-friendly Consumer Reports-style analysis of higher education institutions, even if it is not as beguiling as a football-style set of rankings."
He added: "Rankings, however, are a misleading way to assess colleges and universities. There are lots of great places to get an education. America's colleges and universities work collaboratively to educate the wide variety of people seeking degrees. Different schools may suit different students."