Penn’s place on a series of recent college rankings has prompted some to question the value of rankings in the admissions process.
In September, Penn finished in a five-way tie for fifth place in U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of top national universities. Both Princeton and Columbia universities were ranked ahead of Penn.
At the time, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda told The Daily Pennsylvanian that he was “concerned” with the U.S. News tie, since it could have major implications for future rankings.
Soon after placing 16th on the annual “World University Rankings” by Times Higher Education, Penn was named the ninth-best higher-education institution in the world by U.S. News in its list of top international universities. Both rankings were released in October.
In U.S. News’ international report, Penn jumped ahead of both Princeton and Columbia, which finished 13th and 10th, respectively.
David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he was “not surprised at all” by the flip between the three schools.
“The bottom line here is that the differences between the top 75 colleges are minimal,” Hawkins said. “The order of schools on the U.S. News ranking can change drastically with even the slightest tweak to the methodology is used. A list like this doesn’t do all that much for applicants.”
However, NACAC is looking to change that.
At a meeting in September, a NACAC committee formed in 2010 to research the annual rankings made a series of recommendations to U.S. News.
The nine-person committee — which was made up of college admissions officers from across the country, as well as high-school counselors — focused much of its attention on “how the rankings could be improved to better serve students,” Hawkins said.
In particular, Hawkins explained, the NACAC committee asked U.S. News to change its annual rankings from their current, standardized structure to a format in which school-by-school ranks are customizable based on an applicant’s interests.
For example, if the strength of a school’s mathematics program was a key factor in a student’s college search, U.S. News’ online ranking mechanism would allow the student to place greater weight on a particular mathematics category. The list of schools that would follow “would better reflect the student’s interest … and shore up the ranking methodology,” Hawkins said.
Furda said he supported the proposed change as a way to give students more flexibility in the college search.
“I think that if you want to put the rankings out there and let people change the factors and see how that would influence the rankings, that would be great,” he said.
Others, though, were not so enthusiastic.
Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, said the publication may be a bit hesitant to move forward on NACAC’s recommendation “since what we’re doing now is clearly working well.”
“If we’re going to change our rankings [to give students more say], it’s only going to be in addition to what we’re doing now, not in replacement of it,” he said.
Students offered mixed reactions to the NACAC committee’s proposal.
“College rankings were really just a small aid for me [in the admissions process] … so I think this idea is a great way to make them more meaningful for students,” College freshman Kiara Vaughn said.
However, Engineering sophomore Cristina Sorice cautioned that U.S. News should not wholly abandon its current rankings “since you can’t always predict what’s going to be important to you in college while you’re still in high school.”
Though Morse acknowledged that the rankings are “not perfect,” he added that, “in and of themselves, our reports provide useful information we feel is worthwhile publishing.”
Top Colleges Educational Consultant Steven Goodman agreed.
“Rankings should be viewed as one of the many tools in the admissions process,” said Goodman, who received his master’s degree in education from the Graduate School of Education in 1989. “If used properly, they can be a great help to students.”
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