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Behind the Rankings

Jennifer Leclaire

June 09, 2007

U.S. News & World Report. The Princeton Review. The sheer number of college rating systems published around this time of year can be downright dizzying. Some rankings rate doctoral programs. Others focus more on careers. Some take a look at do-good colleges. Others focus more on faculty. Some shine a spotlight on academic programs ... and so on. What’s a curious, yet overwhelmed student to do? Are some ratings better than others? Do they even really matter in the end?

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“Many students find college ratings helpful because it helps narrow the decision-making field,” says Kristen Campbell, national director of SAT and ACT programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “The ratings definitely give you a lot of information in a single chart, graph or matrix. It’s just important to keep in mind that not all statistics will be helpful for all students.” Different Approaches, Different Ratings Different approaches tend to yield different ratings — sometimes on purpose. The Washington Monthly College Guide is a prime — and recent — example.

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The Washington Monthly ratings aim to offer an alternative to the U.S. News & World Report and other college guides. Instead of focusing on what colleges can do for students, the Washington Monthly’s ratings focus on what the colleges are doing for the country.
The result: sharply divergent rankings from the mainstream guides. For example, U.S. News ranks Princeton in the top spot while the Washington Monthly rates the Ivy League school at 78. U.S. News ranked Texas A&M 60th while the Washington Monthly gave it top honors. Academic Analytics, meanwhile, publishes the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index, a new program for ranking doctoral programs at research universities. “Our rankings aren’t going to tell a student if his advisor is warm and fuzzy, but it will give him an idea of the available resources on campus,” says Stephanie Altman, marketing manager at Academic Analytics, a Stonybrook, New York-based publication. “Our rankings can’t tell you how much camaraderie there is among students, but they give you a good idea of the program’s quality.” A Few Stats to Watch Then there’s The Princeton Review, which nixed its age-old “best overall academics” rating this year to offer up a new category dubbed “best career/job placement services.” The Princeton Review concluded that the University of Texas at Austin offers students the best career counseling. One more difference: some ratings, like U.S. News & World Report, decide which schools make the grade and which fall at the bottom of the scoring barrel. Others, like The Princeton Review, let students do the ratings. Either way, Campbell suggests focusing on a couple of key metrics in the ratings equation: alumni giving rate and the freshman year retention rate. The alumni giving rate, she explains, is a measure of what percentage of alumni are giving back to the school. That could demonstrate how satisfied the alumni are with their experience. “We encourage families to take a look at the school’s freshman year retention rate because it shows two things,” Campbell says. “First, it shows whether the students are happy with their experience. But it can also be a measure of how supportive the school is of its students from an academic or financial aid standpoint.” To Rate or Not to Rate? Dr. Paul Wrubel, co-founder of The College Company, a financial aid consultancy for college students and their families, has a simple solution for the rating system confusion: scrap the ratings. From where he sits, the information about colleges and universities is helpful, but the actual rating is illogical. “A rating system is a huge mistake. Some of the colleges refuse to provide information because it’s not in our national interest,” Wrubel says. “The U.S. has wonderful colleges and students shouldn’t have to worry about if their college is rated number 55. The student should be satisfied that he is going to the best college for him.” If you still want to see the ratings, your search for the system that best satisfies your curiosity may begin on your favorite Internet search engine. “Think about what you want to know about a college,” Altman says. “Then do some research online and you’ll find rankings that rate colleges on things you care about the most.”

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