College rankings spark debate

Some publications' rankings may present a skewed perspective

· September 25, 2012, 10:18 pm

While the latest release of college rankings has kept Penn’s campus abuzz, their effect on prospective applicants to the University has been up for debate.

Earlier this month, Penn dropped from fifth to eighth place in the country on the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings, while last month it jumped from 52nd to 17th place in a similar Forbes ranking. In addition, Newsweek recently named Penn the second most stressful school in the country, while other rankings have focused on the University’s reputation as an LGBT-friendly institution or a party school.

Referred to by Dean of Admissions Eric Furda as “an overload of information” for applicants, the ever-expanding number of college rankings — which focus on everything from affordability to Greek life — has also raised questions about the methodologies publications are using to rate and classify universities.

A skewed perspective?

While most publications are transparent about the factors their rankings take into account, the National Association for College Admission Counseling — an organization made up of high school and college counselors and admissions professionals — cautions that these rankings may present a skewed perspective.

Rankings like U.S. News’ “depend on things more related to input, the students coming in — [such as] SAT scores — rather than the experience they have while on campus,” NACAC Assistant Director of Research Melissa Clinedinst said.

For example, Newsweek’s “Most Stressful Colleges” ranking looked at things like the total cost of attendance, the average amount of financial aid and different measures of selectivity.

While these rankings “have an air of legitimacy because they come from respected publications,” Clinedinst stressed the importance of paying attention to the criteria being used and focusing on what is best for the individual applicant.

Top Colleges Educational Consultant Steven Goodman, a 1989 Graduate School of Education graduate, believes the “Most Stressful Colleges” ranking in particular “is too generic and can be confusing to a lot of students.” He added that Newsweek “may need to explain further why it chose to use such vague terms that may not necessarily give really useful information to applicants.”

Jeffrey Durso-Finley — director of college counseling at Lawrenceville High School in Lawrenceville, N.J. — added that many rankings are clear and straightforward, such as those looking at post-college outcomes or the number of students who study abroad.

“It’s the rankings based on general institutional qualities that are driven more by financial resources than anything else [that are] a misrepresentation of what’s taking place on campus,” he said.

What’s measured and what’s at stake

With the recent rise in the number of college rankings, some believe an extra degree of complexity has been added to the admissions process.

Durso-Finley believes the vast increase in rankings has resulted from an “insatiable” public desire for information about colleges, as well as the lack of transparency of the admissions process in general.

“There is no answer, no formula,” he said. “Rankings give people who are confused or concerned something concrete to grab onto that helps them quantify something that’s essentially unquantifiable in their own mind.”

Despite the significant increase in the number of college rankings in recent years, some students still find themselves searching for more information throughout the college application process.

When College senior Alex Leszczynska transferred to Penn from American University, she found that what she learned about Penn through rankings did not prepare her for the reality of campus life. As a result of the University’s “pre-professional focus — work hard, play hard taken to the extreme — the life quality you give up in the process is maybe not a good tradeoff,” she said. “Had I known that, maybe I wouldn’t have transferred.”

Rankings also played a large role in College sophomore Julia Shin’s application process. As an international student, Shin said she used traditional college rankings like those of The Huffington Post as well as student review sites like College Prowler to decide where to apply.

“What campus and life is like at Penn, those things the website or admissions doesn’t tell you — you get it from the rankings,” she said. “Having a good ranking, letter grade or reviews really affected my decision.”

She believes that college rankings are particularly important for international students, since most cannot visit campus before deciding to enroll at Penn.

Engineering junior Cristina Sorice, a member of the Admissions Dean’s Advisory Board, believes that rankings help get applicants initially interested in Penn, whether because of its reputation as the “social Ivy” or its academic programs.

However, she added that “rankings don’t mean anything to me unless I have more information — a lot of people read the rankings and complain, but it doesn’t really matter … you’re not defined by it.”

However, Goodman thinks that rankings, while often a good source of information, can have a major effect on how a university is perceived.

“This affects students in a whole host of ways — not only on the admissions side, but also what happens when students get out,” he said. “Once a university has a reputation for something, it’s very difficult to shake it off.”

At the end of the day, Furda believes rankings are just another piece in the “information mosaic” of college admissions.

“People have to make decisions for themselves and hope that they aren’t making them on erroneous information,” he said.

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