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Beware the Rankings!

By Robert LeVine

In researching options for higher education, many students and families rely upon college rankings. These lists – from best overall university to best at teaching a particular subject to unique college attributes – can be valuable, but only as part of an overall strategy for researching colleges.

The starting point is to realize that rankings are not really rankings. These listings are merely the results of formulae. “Overall best school” rankings are usually created by an algorithm, with variables that can be manipulated by the universities. Rankings manipulation is big business: the higher the ranking, the more money the college can collect through fundraising.

The most well-known example of rankings manipulation is Northeastern University. In 1996, Northeastern was a middle-of-the-road, Boston-area commuter university. Its new President, Richard Freeland, saw an opportunity. To justify the increased costs needed to rebuild the university, Freeland recognized that a single ranking – the U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” ranking – could singlehandedly improve his school’s revenue potential.

Freeland directed university researchers to break the code for the U.S. News algorithm so that Northeastern could game the system and climb up the rankings ladder. To lower class size – a significant attribute in the U.S. News formula – Northeastern hired more teachers and capped classes at 19 students to get credit for the number of classes it offered with fewer than 20 students. To increase selectivity, Northeastern started using the online Common Application to attract (and therefore reject) more applicants. To increase the number of students who stay enrolled, Northeastern built more residential housing, since students who stay on campus are statistically more likely to stay in school. Freeland purposefully glad-handed other university presidents, using interpersonal politics to acquire more and better reviews from his peers.

Any ratings variable that Northeastern could attack, it did. Within 10 years, Northeastern moved up more than 60 slots on the U.S. News “Best Colleges” ranking, and it continues to rise. Although Northeastern ranked No. 162 in 1996, today it ranks at No. 39.

Even the highest-ranked schools play the game. The year that Stanford surpassed Harvard as the most-selective college in America, it did so in part by offering admission to fewer students and then completing its class from those on its waiting list. Many universities now accept students to begin in the second semester, not with the original fall class, so that the admissions results appear more favorable to the school. The University of Florida, which was tied for No. 14 in the U.S. News public university rankings, is systematically changing its methods because UF wishes to rise into the top 10.

Even though they are imprecise, rankings do have value. We recommend that students and families look past the highest-ranked schools toward the middle of the lists to find excellent mid-grade colleges that they might not otherwise know. Research other rankings as well, including rankings by employers about colleges which produce the most job-ready graduates. Look for environmental attributes, not just academic ones, to ensure that the overall learning experience is optimal. For example, look for student satisfaction or student engagement rankings. Perhaps, even consider some “best college food” lists!

Yet the best results come from looking past rankings altogether. Start by researching the structure of each university’s curriculum. Do you pick your major immediately, or wait two years before declaring your path? Does the school place you into an inflexible academic “silo” but allow some interdisciplinary options; require that you take prescribed “core” courses; lead you through broad “general education” requirements before you pursue your direction deeply; or offer an “open” curriculum in which you can choose any courses you wish, without limitation (or direction)?

There are many more areas to research, from residential environment to student discourse and traditions to off-campus opportunities, but prudent students and families should beware the rankings!

Robert A.G. Levine, president of Selective College Consulting Inc., can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email BobLeVine@SelectiveCC.com or visit www.SelectiveCollegeConsulting.com

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