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Truths about College Rankings

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  December 12, 2012 01:31 PM

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Take a look through this year’s U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, University of Chicago.

It’s a parade of nearly-impossible-to-get-into schools, scored by metrics that often privilege reputation over real student experiences.

For example, U.S. News notes that it:

“gives significant weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school's undergraduate academic excellence. The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics—presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions—to account for intangibles at peer institutions such as faculty dedication to teaching.”

Well, OK, but how much do you value the opinion of, say, Stanford’s provost?

Does he think like you? Does he think about good education in the same way? And perhaps, most importantly, does he have a solid grasp of what life is like at the University of Chicago, MIT, or the University of New Hampshire in 2012?

(If you’re wondering, Stanford’s provost, John Etchemendy, holds degrees from the University of Nevada and Stanford).

But U.S. News’ approach to colleges is flawed not just in subjective ways (what does Stanford’s provost think of a school he never attended and likely knows little about?) but in objective ways too.

In the statistics that accompany the ratings, for example, Yale - this year’s #3 school -(Harvard and Princeton are tied for #1) has a 7.7% acceptance rate.

Which sounds rather low. Until you start looking at the real numbers, which make 7.7% look like an open-door policy.

As Yale’s alumni magazine noted last year, many of those who are admitted fall into special categories (this would be much the same at any Ivy League school, as well as dozens of other schools). For example, at Yale:

  • 13.5% are children of alumni
  • 13.0% are recruited athletes
  • 20.8% are underrepresented minorities
  • 9.9% are international students
Certainly, there is some overlap in these groups; you may have a recruited athlete who is also the child of an alum, so you don’t want to simply add up the numbers above. But even so, what the statistics reveal is that, almost without question, at least a third of Yale’s slots that will not be open to you if you are not the child of an alum, a recruited athlete, an underrepresented minority, or an international student.

For you, then, the 7.7% acceptance just slipped to about 5%

And the value of U.S. News’ ranking system slipped too. Which makes you wonder if a one-size-fits-all ranking system is doing us more harm than good.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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