The University Ranking Game: Should you play it?

An online search generates hundreds of competing, ranking-based service providers, some more popular than others.  Rankings of colleges and universities is its own industry.  Hundreds of organizations have joined the ranking game to generate sales of products and advertising revenue.  Many are legitimate, some not so much, and students buying into the ranking game should understand how ranks are created and decide if those ranks reflect any value on where they should earn their higher education degree.

Popular ranking organizations include: Academic Ranking of World Universities, Center for World University Rankings, College Choice Rankings, Fiske Guide to Colleges Best Buys, Global Citizens for Human Rights Global University Rankings, Princeton Review Best Colleges, QS World University Rankings, The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, US News Best Grad School Rankings, and others.  There is no agreed-upon standard or set of criteria for determining rankings, and each provider has its own formula.  However, if you don’t know the criteria behind a ranking, how would you know that the ranking should matter for you?

Of the above-mentioned rankings, one is partially based upon the number of patents owned by the universities.  Another considers the number of alumni and staff who have received Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.  Another factors in the percentage of international faculty.  One is based upon surveys with students evaluating their own schools.  Another includes universities which pay several thousand dollars to be listed.  You should ask yourself, how much weight should these rankings have toward a decision on where to apply?

Harvard Medical School lecturer and graduate curriculum professional, Dr. R. Jason Heustis, states: “Rankings are not the only metric that you can use to determine whether a program is the right fit, the place where you will be most productive, or the environment where you will happiest.”  Bowling Green State University Assistant Dean and Director of Graduate Enrollment, Keith E. Ramsdell, states: “A ranking should never be the deciding factor when making a final decision on where to attend.  It should always be considered among many characteristics, such as academic reputation, campus environment, quality faculty, research opportunities and student diversity, just to name a few.”  Educational consultant and educator at Tennessee State University, Dr. Jewel Green Winn, adds: “For First Generation families, international students, and all students facing unique challenges, they should consider the availability of services provided by the universities, such as counseling, tutoring, and success coaching.”

Although a ranking may reflect quality, the agreed-upon mechanism for validating quality throughout the U.S. is called accreditation.  In general terms, accreditation is granted after a thorough review and assessment of quality indicators by peer institutions and it validates standards of quality accepted by the other accreditation organizations.  Many national, discipline-based accreditations exist but there are six regional accrediting organizations recognized throughout higher education with genuine accrediting authority:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (a former unit of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools);
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education;
  • Higher Learning Commission (a member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools);
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities;
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges; and
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (multiple commissions).

The bottom line is … students wanting a university degree in the U.S. must do their homework.  Play the ranking game if you want, but do not place too much emphasis on rankings.  Instead, do more homework!  First make sure the university is accredited, then look deeper to see if its academic program is the right fit for you.  Check faculty credentials, laboratory and research facilities, the campus and surrounding community, tuition and costs of living, student services, outcomes and job placement rates.  Do your homework, research your options, create your own ranking, and … apply early!  If necessary, expand your list and try again.

by Robert Hassen

Educational Contributor; and
Manager of Graduate Recruiting at Central Michigan University

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