College Ratings and Rankings

Lists and rankings that purport to identify the “best” colleges make me uncomfortable. One reason is that as I scan such lists I can always come up with multiple comparable schools that deserve to be included, but didn’t make the grade for some reason.

Take the popular Loren Pope book, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. I’m familiar with many of the profiled schools that impressed the late Mr. Pope as he crisscrossed the nation back in the late 1990s. I worked at one of them, Denison University, in Granville, OH, for ten years. Denison is a superb school, no doubt about it, and I know many alumni who would say that their attendance did indeed change their lives.

I agree with Mr. Pope that small liberal arts colleges offer an emphasis on teaching and personalized attention that isn’t often available at large universities or even Ivy League schools. And yet, why Denison and not Whittier College in CA, why Kalamazoo College in MI and not Coe College in IA?

My dearest friend graduated from Stephens College, a private women’s college in Columbia, MO. I have visited Stephens several times with Betsy, and met many of her delightful alumnae friends. Virtually all of them cite their Stephens experience as pivotal, and all are doing interesting, worthwhile things with their lives and careers. Yet Stephens isn’t featured in Mr. Pope’s book, nor does it receive a high ranking in the most recent list of national liberal arts colleges from U.S. News and World Report.

One of the major bases for the U.S. News rankings is admission selectivity. I am interested in the yearly institutional outcomes, but more for the individual statistics assembled by the researchers than for any certitude that this is indeed a highly valid list, for the worthiness of colleges in my mind is as variable as the range of interests and learning styles of the nation’s prospective college students in any given year.

I very much agree with a quote by Richard H. Hersch, a past college president and present board member of the American Association of Colleges & Universities from a recent Southeast Education Network publication: “Higher Education is the only industry in America where we rank based on input rather than output.” Precisely!

Ahead of official rankings and standout-40 lists I would recommend building personal lists based on program strengths and alumni reviews, digging deeply into reported institutional strengths and making in-person visits whenever possible to check things out first-hand. Colleges also impress me where faculty members are involved in recruiting and wooing students and where they are accessible to prospective students. Let’s tell school stories more often and look at numbers less frequently.