Which Rankings Can Actually Help You Pick a College?

The way we rank colleges is troubling: It's devoid of measures that are meaningful to students choosing a school. Anya Kamenetz ranks the rankers.

Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans' French Quarter was founded in 1840. It is the oldest restaurant in the United States that has been continuously run by the same family.

Le Bernadin in New York City has three stars from the Michelin Guide, four stars from The New York Times, and top ratings from Zagat. The chef's tasting menu is currently $186 per person.

McDonald's, founded in 1954, serves affordable hamburgers, plus an increasing number of healthy options, like smoothies, at 32,000 locations around the world. It is said that no two countries with a McDonald's have ever gone to war.

Which of these is the "best" restaurant? The oldest and most traditional? The top-reviewed and most expensive? The cheapest and most ubiquitous? (Personally, I would pass them all up to go to my favorite Thai place in Queens.)

Everyone loves to argue over rankings. Foodies, however, understand that the process is overwhelmingly subjective, and that your choice of a particular restaurant on a particular day has to be calibrated by price range, type of cuisine, healthiness, and convenience.

Choosing a college to attend, of course, is far more fraught than picking a restaurant for dinner. The consequences may last a lifetime—the name on that diploma can be used as a proxy to judge you for hiring and other competitive situations. That's why the way we rank and judge colleges is so troubling: It's all but devoid of measures that might be meaningful or helpful to students who are making such a fateful decision.

Therefore, here I endeavor to rank the rankers:

The Carnegie Foundation's classification system originated in 1970 with Clark Kerr, legendary president of the University of California. It's one of the most important classification systems in higher ed, serving as the basis for eligibility for state funding and federal research money. If you hear the terms, "first-tier," "second-tier," or a "Research I" university, this refers the Carnegie scheme. Carnegie ranks universities and colleges primarily according to the type of degree they award (associate's only, mainly master's, or lots of doctorates), as well as the proportion of arts and sciences vs. pre-professional degrees. The not-so-hidden assumption here is that the more English Ph.D.s your institution produces, the better it is.

Score—Importance: 5 out of 5; Relevance: 1 out of 5; Overall Helpfulness: 2 out of 5.

U.S. News and World Report has put out the most famous college rankings since 1987. About one-quarter of their points rely on reputational surveys—what other college administrators and high school guidance counselors think—which tend to get a bit circular. (Princeton is the best because everyone thinks so!) The other factors are mostly related to how wealthy a college is: faculty salaries, class size, alumni giving, and straight-up spending per student. There's no room here for colleges that may do more with less or provide a good value for money.

Score—Importance: 4 out of 5, Relevance: 2 out of 5, Overall Helpfulness: 2.5 out of 5.

SmartMoney magazine put out a small survey in December, 2008, comparing the published cost of a four-year degree to the average salaries of graduates. The public institution Texas A&M scored first, with a payback of more than two and a half times that of Harvard. In fact, the state universities of tiny Delaware and Rhode Island scored higher than every Ivy League school. But it's too small and one-dimensional to be a reliable source.

Score—Importance: 1 out of 5, Relevance: 4 out of 5, Overall Helpfulness: 3 out of 5.

Recently, the U.K. publication Times Higher Education released a ranking of the 200 best world universities (the top 10 are all in the United States or the United Kingdom). Nearly 65 percent of the rankings are based on research—how much of it is taking place, how widely it's cited, the number of income-producing patents it yields, and reputation. "Teaching" receives 30 percent, but much of this score is based on student-teacher ratios, as well as a reputational survey. Research is key to the broader social function of a university, but from a student's point of view, is it really the most important factor in choosing a college?

Score—Importance: 4 out of 5, Relevance: 2 out of 5, Overall Helpfulness: 2.5 out of 5.

Forbes magazine put out a ranking in 2010 that makes more of an effort than most to capture measurements that are actually useful to students. (Full disclosure: I wrote an essay accompanying the rankings.) Their five factors include the four-year graduation rate, student debt and default rates, average salary of graduates, and (amazing!) the students' own opinion of their experience, as measured by websites like Rate My Professors. While not objective, such measures at least make a nod to the idea that the student's experience is important in evaluating a college.

Score: Importance: 4 out of 5, Relevance: 5 out of 5, Overall Helpfulness: 4.5 out of 5.

There is no one best ranking, just as there is no one best college. But, paying attention to how we compare colleges should raise important questions about what we really value in higher education.

Anya Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company and author of Generation Debt. Her latest book is DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

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