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The Truth About College Rankings: Who is Really #1?

There is no real "top 50 colleges": this zero-sum game of rankings renders meaningless. Students must examine a college's philosophy, environment, and academic offerings themselves.
02/27/2009 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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US News and World Report released their first-ever issue of the World's Best Colleges and Universities, based on the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. These new rankings are problematic, like the 25 year-old America's Best Colleges issue, because they create greater confusion for college hopefuls the world over.

Let me break it down: the world rankings focus on an institution's research influence and consider its external reputation by employers, while also taking into account the proportion of the university's international faculty and students. This is in sharp contrast to the America's Best Colleges guide, which focuses on an institution's resources, its selectivity, and the average standardized test scores of admitted students. These factors supposedly influence graduation, retention and alumni donations. The only factor that both surveys have in common is peer review but, for whatever reason, peer review plays a larger role in the World's Best Colleges list, where 40% of an institution's score is determined by this factor (compared to only 25% in America's Best Colleges). As a result, there are significant differences between the two rankings. Check out the chart.

It's bad enough that finding a college based on college rankings ignores a student's individual needs (and how different one campus is from another,) but now students and parents will have to consider two competing views from the very same publication!

The disparity between the two surveys is laughable. How can Boston University be ranked among the top 20 American institutions when compared to its global peers, while ranked 60 when compared only to its American counterparts? Conversely, why are Notre Dame and Georgetown so well regarded when compared to other American colleges, but considerably less so when compared to non-American institutions? As if the college application process wasn't difficult enough, now we have yet another frustrating college rankings list to contend with.

During such a stressful time in an applicant's life, a little list can go a long way in clarifying the applicant's college options. But students need to create their own lists with their own personal rankings. A student may be especially interested in the faculty advising, a certain academic department, a research opportunity, the library's resources, or the career services within a university. The published rankings don't address these important factors in determining it top colleges because, naturally, they can't. It's inherently subjective. But, with research, a student can create his or her own personalized list. There is no real "top 50"; this zero-sum game of rankings renders meaningless. Students must examine a college's philosophy, environment, and academic offerings first and foremost, and that's the truth about college rankings.