Americans love to rank things. What’s the best car, the best doctor, the best hospital. The problem with rankings is figuring out best for whom. Because we all have different interests, and different standards, finding the best of anything is going to be a matter of one person’s judgment.
This is true with colleges as well. We can identify which colleges have the highest SAT averages or the highest alumni giving rate but do those factors make those colleges best for everyone? Of course not. But people still ask what the “top” colleges are.
The best known college ranking service is of course U.S. News. For a number of years the college ranking issue has been their best selling issue. And every year the order of the colleges ranked change, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a great deal. In large part, the reason the rankings of the various colleges change every year is because the magazine changes the criteria by which they determine the “best” college. Who is to say which years criteria are the right criteria?
Several examples can easily illustrate the problems with this type of college ranking. In 1999 the top National University was Caltech. In 1998 Caltech was ranked 9th. In 2000 it was ranked 4th. Did the quality of the education at Caltech change from 1998 to 1999 to 2000? The only thing that changed was the methodology used by US News that made per student spending a more important element in the rankings in 1999. Because Caltech has a high level of per student spending it jumped in the ratings.
An even more extreme example is that of Reed College. Among academics Reed is known as a very strong college and one of the greatest producers of future PhD students in the country. When the US News ranking first came out in 1983, Reed was among the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the country. In 1995 Reed decided that it would no longer provide information to US News for the ranking issue. The result was that Reed was dropped in the rankings down to the 4th tier of colleges, the lowest tier published.
However, the information produced by US News in the annual ranking issue can be helpful as a starting point in the college search process. It can tell you what percentage of students get accepted, the retention rate or number of students that return after their freshman year and other helpful statistics. Just don’t get concerned about who is number one and who is number 5.
Still want to see some rankings?