Reliance on U.S. News college rankings misleads prospective students

By:
09/18/2014

U.S. News and World Report released its annual rankings of American universities last week, ranking Georgetown University No. 21 in the nation—a step down from No. 20 last year. While the change hardly undermines Georgetown’s reputation as a world-class undergraduate institution, the continued importance of college rankings demonstrates that the education community continues to rely on a measurement of questionable value.

Students and parents deciding among colleges naturally desire a metric by which to compare them. An article in The Atlantic last year that prominently featured an image of Healy Hall, however, made the case against the undue obsession with college rankings. Outsiders’ perceptions of an institution, faculty salaries, selectivity, and endowment size are heavily weighted in U.S. News’s arbitrary criteria. Moreover, comparisons from year to year are made dubious by changes in the metrics used, the difficulty of quantifying certain metrics, and the fact that nearly a quarter of them are qualitative.

Rankings have driven some schools to manipulate numbers, as George Washington University and Claremont-McKenna College in 2012. It has also induced them to spend money on improving their image, rather than investing directly in students. The University of Chicago, for instance, aggressively lowered its acceptance rate from 39 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2012, raising its ranking from 15th to fifth during the same period. These practices drive up tuition, obscure an institution’s true quality of education, and ignore outcome metrics that indicate graduating students’ future success.

Georgetown’s small endowment of $80,000 per student and its modest admissions rate, due to the University’s continued refusal to accept the Common Application, necessarily relegated it below the top 20 rankings this year. Renowned professors and high SAT scores of incoming freshmen, however, have only a marginal impact on the value of a Georgetown education.

Of greater concern is the University’s average ranking of 0.2 in The New York Times’ College Access Index, also released last week, which quantifies socioeconomic diversity at the nation’s top colleges on a scale between -3 and 3.1. The Times observed that Yale, which is tied with Georgetown for accessibility, has an endowment of almost $2 million per student. Despite the fact that the University’s tuition remains one of the highest in the nation, programs such as the Georgetown Scholarship Program have flourished in the past decade, providing its recipients with career connections and one-on-one support. The University was also recently ranked as the No. 1 college for veterans—by U.S. News and World Report no less—illustrating steps taken in the right direction to support Hoyas with limited financial means.

Georgetown deserves praise for resisting the trend of manipulating data and pursuing policies that kowtow to U.S. News & World Report’s artificial inflation of university prestige. With the worth of a college degree coming under increasing fire, an institution that prioritizes students over arbitrary ranking sends a valuable message.

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