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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, May 27, 2024

Ranking the ranking systems

At the onset of each school year, prospective students typically flock to two sources of information regarding the long and arduous college admissions process that sits inevitably ahead of them: U.S. News & World Report's and The Princeton Review's annual rankings and descriptions of the country's top colleges and universities.

While some students view college rankings as a wealth of information over the course of the application process, dog-earing pages and color-coding their lists of choices, others consider them neither beneficial nor valid. As a result, a new breed of college ranking systems is being developed to target high school students in a different way.

The college ranking industry is a complex business and a crucial component of the college admissions culture. In spite of their dominance, Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman said that some rankings can be misleading.

"While I can't speak for everyone at Tufts, guides are often arbitrary, and the methodology of collecting data can be anything but scientific at times," Reitman said. "I don't typically look at the reviews and I don't give a lot of credence or validity to the college guides, but I also know that we can't just disregard them, because a lot of students look at them."

The two most popular ranking resources represent a dichotomy. While U.S. News & World Report uses five factors to calculate an institution's score, The Princeton Review uses more subdivisions. For example, The Princeton Review's "quality of life" rating evaluates beauty, safety, location, food, dorms, the friendliness of students, student interaction and the school's relationship with the local community.

While U.S. News & World Report awards the most weight to "Peer Assessment," which has deans and presidents from other institutions evaluate a peer school, The Princeton Review relies solely on students from the institution to gather its information.

But the fundamental difference between the two systems is that U.S. News and World Report actually ranks the schools in numerical order, while The Princeton Review does not.

"We don't rank on a one-to-100 scale because there is no such thing as a best school. Rather, there is a best-fit school for every student. We provide what we believe to be the best schools in the country, and they are all excellent for different reasons, but it is not appropriate to assign rankings to schools that are all completely different from each other," said Rebecca Lessem, senior editor of The Princeton Review's publication "The Best 368 Colleges."

Considering the number of colleges and universities to which students apply, college guides are becoming increasingly crucial for some.

For those who cannot come to the school for a tour or stay overnight with a current student — like many of Tufts' international contingent — there is little to rely on beyond a reputation and an image promoted by guidance counselors, word of mouth and tools like The Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report.

Proponents of the system contend that the main advantage of rankings is that they provide a way for families to make smart financial decisions and allow students to compare colleges and universities in a standardized way. And in the chaotic world of college admissions, guides are sources of accessible, comparative data.

But Director of Admissions Susan Garrity Ardizzoni explained that there has been an ongoing discussion in admissions circles encouraging schools to withhold the information U.S. News & World Report uses to formulate its list in an effort to discourage students from relying on a ranking system.

As traditional rankings systems are being called into question, a number of new ones are emerging. Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, has spent the last year matching internal data from employee evaluations with information about the colleges its engineers attended. This information will be used to create a ranking system that links a college with its graduates' success.

"It's really about improving the dialogue on curriculum, performance and how we can build a stronger relationship between the colleges, universities and us because, ultimately, their students become our employees," said Richard D. Stevens, Boeing's senior vice president for human resources and administration, in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) is also producing its own ranking system: America's Best Colleges. According to the business publication Forbes, the ranking will include more practical evaluations such as future career prospects and amount of debt after college, and is based on considerations such as student review Web sites, notable alumni, the number of students graduating in four years, and the number of students and faculty members who have won nationally competitive awards.

Another development in the world of college rankings is called the National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE), which works to comprehensively determine the quality of the student experience. The NSSE gathers information about student participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and development. The results are intended to show how students spend their time and what they gain from attending college.

Among Tufts students, there seems to be a consensus that a college's ranking is less important than finding a school that matches interests.

"How you feel about Tufts depends on where you are coming from and how you wish to be involved. And there are some measures that schools look at that the ranking process doesn't or can't take into account," Reitman said.

"I think there is a subconscious college ranking system within our culture that I was somewhat dependent on during the application process. But when I sat down and weighed the pros and cons of each school I was considering, I realized that ranking is secondary," freshman Tori Elliott said. "The point is to get the most out of your education, and that transcends rankings."

Nevertheless, rankings and guides have become such important advertising tools for schools around the country that they seem to have carved out a lasting place for themselves in the market.

"While we put the guide together for the benefit of students using it, the guide secondarily serves as an advertisement for the school, especially because we often feature small-name schools or schools that give these student consumers the best financial deal," Lessem said.