College rankings: Filling a void, providing a service

Article Highlights

  • College rankings are given a lot of attention for a simple reason: We crave info on the quality of colleges.

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  • Rankings at best are a limited tool in helping make college decisions.

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  • Colleges are in the knowledge business, but are woefully bad at providing performance indicators on themselves.

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Editor's note: This piece appeared in The New York Times Room for Debate and answers the question: Are the annual rankings in U.S. News a useful guide or too simplistic? How could they be improved?

Students, their parents and even university officials give a lot of attention to rankings for a simple reason: they crave information on the quality of colleges. The colleges themselves provide little that can help in college decision-making: little or no information on the post-graduate earnings success of alumni, the general level of satisfaction with classes or the gains made in developing critical thinking skills. Magazines like U.S. News, Forbes and Washington Monthly are providing a service by filling this void.

To be sure, the “best” school for one student may not be the best for another, and personal tastes, scholarly interests, geographic preferences, academic ability and financial considerations are important in deciding which school is optimal. A single ranking system cannot accommodate the huge variations in these traits between individuals. Rankings at best are a limited tool in helping make college decisions.

Like many critics, I have had some problems with the U.S. News rankings, namely that I think they put too much emphasis on inputs like instructional spending and alumni giving, or reputation as determined by academic administrators who often know little about many schools being ranked. Accordingly, my research center does an alternative set of rankings for Forbes, emphasizing outcomes and student satisfaction more than inputs and reputation. This leads to a different set of rankings, although the two lists are usually similar at the very top: Harvard, Yale and Princeton, for example, are always in the top 10 on both lists.

Are the rankings an undesirable distraction? No. Colleges are in the knowledge business, but are woefully bad (deliberately so, I think) at providing performance indicators on their own institutions. U.S. News and others are offering a useful service in giving a bewildered public some idea of who is doing things right in higher education.

Richard Vedder is the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University. He is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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