What Matters Most About College Isn't 'Rankable'

It's college rankings season, and no one has more of a love-hate relationship with these annual lists than academia -- except maybe parents.

Don't get me wrong; data is great. As a parent on the college search myself, it is gratifying to have hard facts and boxes to check. But some commercial lists employ questionable methodology, and the plain truth is that whether a student will thrive at a particular school cannot be determined by an institution's national ranking.

Rather, some of the most valuable attributes of colleges and universities are the hardest to measure. An excellent report this week from the New York Times ranked economic diversity among our nation's campuses, which is important information for families. But other vital considerations are virtually "unrankable."

And so, with irony noted, and no small amount of unscientific methodology applied, here is my own ranking of five critical unrankables:

  • Commitment to teaching: It may seem obvious, but great professors are the central component of a great education. And while there is data on the number of books and papers faculty publish, it is harder to measure professors' true commitment to the art of teaching. Passionate educators and strong student-faculty relationships forge deep knowledge and connections that set students up for long-term success.

  • An intentional living environment: The influence of residential life is often underestimated. By having to live and work with people from different backgrounds in a community of "unlike," -- whether geographical, political, cultural, or socioeconomic -- a great residential college gives the next generation the tools they will need to get things done in an increasingly complex world. Residential halls should be an environment where leadership, responsibility and civic engagement are expected behaviors, so that students learn to treat others with respect, adapt to change, and forge solutions to build community.
  • The relationship quotient: Being book smart is necessary, but not sufficient for life. During their college years, students have to learn to form different kinds of connections with peers and faculty. These lasting relationships stay with them -- and the soft skills absorbed along the way are a predictor of their success.
  • Active learning: Learning happens by doing, whether in a classroom, lab or studio, or off campus with an internship or studying abroad. So abundant opportunities to participate during the college years offer distinct advantages over the "spectator" model of hiding in the back of a large lecture hall or being relegated to watching as others participate in the arts or athletics.
  • The freedom to fail: College should be a place that encourages students to try new things, including subjects and activities that they are not likely to excel in the first time they try (or ever). Great colleges create a climate in which students feel empowered to take full advantage of all opportunities before them. Failure is critical to self-discovery.
  • Students are individuals, and universities are very different from one another. The "best" school on a list just might be the wrong choice for an individual student. The trick is using the data to make an educated guess about fit. How? I'd suggest doing it the old fashioned way -- talk to people, ask questions, visit campuses, draw your own conclusions. Over time, I have learned the best predictor is often a student's instincts about which school feels right. I look forward to hearing your suggestions on other college factors that might just outweigh the rankings.