Ranking The College Rankings

May 30, 2014
Originally published on May 30, 2014 1:41 pm

There are a lot of factors a student has to consider when choosing a college, such as cost, location, reputation, and curriculum.

With so many variables, students — and parents — often turn to the U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review for guidance. But do those rankings actually help a student make an informed and accurate decision?

NPR education blogger Anya Kamenetz joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of college ranking criteria.


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It's HERE AND NOW. And it's high school graduation season. And some students going on to find jobs, others getting ready for college. They may have turned to the College Board or the Princeton Review to see how colleges rank. But are the rankings right?

Anya Kamenetz, a blogger for the NPR ed team, decided to find out by ranking the college rankings. She joins us from the NPR studios in New York. Anya, welcome.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me, Robin.

YOUNG: Well, some of us have always been suspicious about the rankings. But why did you want to look at them?

KAMENETZ: Well, college rankings have been in the news lately because both lawmakers and activists have actually been calling on U.S. News and the Princeton Review to incorporate sexual assault and campus safety into their rankings. And this is really part of a broader conversation trying to draw attention to the cost and benefit of what you get from going to college and whether the promises that many colleges make are really delivered upon.

YOUNG: Well, and these kinds of stats that they're asking for would affect an aspect of the rankings - one that you dissect. You do dissect many of them. But let's start with reputation. You found a problem in how a school's reputation can be ranked.

KAMENETZ: Reputation is probably the most common way that colleges have been ranked historically. And basically, it's pretty circular. The best colleges are those where the best people go. But the problem is something called the halo effect.

And in one study, college leaders were asked how good do you think is Princeton's undergraduate business program? And it's a trick question because they don't have a business program. But in fact, the college leaders gave it top 10 rankings anyway. And that's because Princeton has such a great reputation over all. And so reputation can be a pretty thin way of assessing colleges, and it tends to perpetuate the way in which the ones that are on top remain on top.

YOUNG: Right, because you just think well of them because they've been on top. How about graduation rates?

KAMENETZ: Well, graduation rates is really interesting. You know, College Navigator is a site that's pushed out by the Department of Education. And they are really encouraging people to focus more on these outcomes rather than just inputs.

The inputs would be things like, you know, what is the SAT score of the entering student? And graduation rates is really how successful are students when they come out. And that's a very relevant measurement. The problem is when you're trying to compare colleges based on their graduation rates, you do have to account for such things as who is going to that college and how many resources does the college have.

To take one example, the University of California system has a 16 percent graduation rate. And that's pretty unfortunate. But when you look at the - you know, the high population of first-generation students, the fact that these are older, working students in many cases, you realize that it may not be all the college's fault. And so graduation rates are best used to really compare colleges in very similar categories based on their demographics.

YOUNG: Yeah, you say a cash-strapped public university that takes everybody is going to have a lower graduation rate than a private school.

KAMENETZ: And that's why this is so tricky. You know, when you get into the question of quality in education, are you talking about basically the resources that an institution has or are you talking about what it does with what it has? And obviously, we'd like to move towards the what it does with what it has. But that can be very tricky to do given the available information.

YOUNG: Well, and you do point out, students have to look at what it is they need and what they want.

KAMENETZ: You know, this is a really important point because we have spent so much time with this single hierarchy of status and prestige in higher education. And Harvard's at the top and everybody else ranks below them. But the fact is that the best college is not an objective assessment.

The best college is what's the best one for you, what's the best fit, what's going to be matching with your talents and your interests. Are you happy at a larger school or a smaller school? And so as we get into the era of big data, I think we're hopefully moving into an approach where rankers can take all of the information, not only about the college but also about the student, and generate a list that is your own personal top 10 list.

YOUNG: Well, in this case, there are - they're not ratings agencies, but there are places you can go to take a look. Tell us about noodle.org.

KAMENETZ: So noodle.org is a start-up, actually, by the founder of the Princeton Review. And they're really taking a throw everything at the wall approach to college rankings. So they're shoveling together all the government data, the graduation rates, the costs, the financial aid as well as student reviews. And they're trying to generate recommendations that are personalized for each person. So if you give them a sense of your transcript and your interests, they're going to generate a list of schools that you are going to do well in.

YOUNG: Sometimes people fall into the trap of wanting to run to the most popular ratings survey. But a lot of people are saying don't treat college like a factory that just takes in students and churns out successful people. That's not the only way to rank what you want to achieve in life.

KAMENETZ: You know, there's always going to be this tension in education that education is not a mass production. It's something that the individual is taking a very active role in creating the quality of their education. However, I don't think that's not an excuse, personally, for colleges not to be held to some objective metrics, even if no one metric can capture the full value of a degree.

An example would be, you know, recently Gallop released the results with Purdue University of a survey of 30,000 graduates. And they were asking specifically about not only engagement in careers, but also thriving and well-being in various aspects of their lives. And the really crazy result from this was that there was no advantage to attending a private, expensive school or even one of the Top 100 schools in the U.S. News's rankings. So there's no measurable impact on a very broad level years later from attending a school that's supposed to be one of the best. And I think that should really get us to ask a different question about what exactly these colleges are promising and how they're delivering.

YOUNG: Well, as you said, the Obama administration is expected to release its own college rating system. What do you expect it to be like?

KAMENETZ: Well, first of all, they're dragging their heels on releasing it. So I think it's politically pretty difficult. But what they'd like to do with this is imposed some rigor on colleges that are not doing a good job with student funds.

So they'd like to look at graduation rates. They'd like to look at the cost of attendance, whether students can pay back their loans as well as some of these employment and other statistics. And they want to tie that to, actually, federal student aid.

So it's a really ambitious move. I think it's a really important statement that we're - you know, that they want to hold colleges accountable. But whether they're able to deliver on that is another question.

YOUNG: That's Anya Kamenetz, a blogger for the NPR ed team with her rankings of the rankings of colleges and universities. Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.