Released at the beginning of each academic year, U.S. News and World Report’s America’s Best Colleges issue has become a road map for students starting out on the college search process.
Interest in this year’s rankings has grown with U.S. News’ decision to numerically rank schools in the top half, in addition to listing the top 50 universities. Previously, tier two schools were lumped together in alphabetical order without distinction.
A high spot on the list can provide a surge of publicity for a school and a ready-made line for the next alumni fundraising letter. On GW’s Web site, for example, visitors are asked to donate money to help the University’s position in the report.
Despite widespread acceptance of the rankings, many are critical of the importance placed on a school’s place in the U.S. News poll, and warn that rankings should not be a student’s sole determinant when choosing a college.
The magazine itself downplays the significance of a school’s exact position. An explanation of how the rankings are to be read appears in each edition as a sort of disclaimer, urging prospective college students not to use the guide by itself to gauge a particular school.
“There’s a ton of information that’s out there, and a lot of students and parents look at the rankings and use them as an easy way to decide which school is better than another,” said Sara Sklaroff, U.S. News education and culture editor. “Luckily there are a lot of counselors who will tell them that’s not the way to do it.”
Sklaroff said that choosing the right college is a very personal decision, and suggested students use the guide to identify schools that may share a similar status with schools they’ve already taken an interest in.
“The problem with the survey is that it places too much emphasis on numbers,” said Cary Eisenhaus, a college counselor at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious private school in New Hampshire that sends scores of students each year to top ranked universities. “The stats and quantitative data are useful in terms of comparing colleges to one another, but the actual numerical ranking is negligible.”
Eisenhaus said that the laundry-list format of the college guide, intentionally or not, simplifies what he describes as a very complex process of assessing a school.
“Among a certain segment of the population the U.S. News rankings have some importance, especially for families looking for a quick fix to a complicated process,” he said. “But we strongly discourage students from putting an emphasis on these lists.”
Augustine Garza, deputy director of admissions at the University of Texas-Austin, warns students to be wary of the criteria used to compile the rankings, urging them that there is more to look for in a university.
“We know that surveys will measure what newspapers and magazines want them to measure,” Garza said. “That’s not always the best way to assess a college.”
Several college admissions officers said being highly ranked does not necessarily correspond to a surge in applications.
Kathryn Napper, GW’s director of admissions, said she doubts that GW, which has languished in the second tier for five years but has seen its undergraduate enrollment increase by 53 percent during that time, will benefit from the revised ranking system.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a major factor in changing students minds,” Napper said of the revised rankings’ importance to prospective applicants. “I think people are a little more savvy than that. If U.S. News had been a big deal over the years, we wouldn’t have been getting the swell of applications we have.”
Texas A&M University was ranked 48 on the list as recently as 2002, but has been outside the top 50 in two consecutive surveys. Associate Director of Admissions Cynthia Gay said the lower position has had no effect on interest in the school. “There was really no impact at all,” Gay said. “Last year we actually had a record number of applicants. I think these things have more of an effect on students who have no idea where they want to go, but overall I think most students do a lot of the research themselves and make their own decisions.”
The University of Texas, having been ranked in the mid-forties for several years, slipped in the 2004 report from 47 to 53, outside the coveted top 50. Yet school officials don’t expect the impact on admissions to be notable at their university either.
“I’m talking to (high school) students all the time, and they’re not telling me, ‘I want to go to UT because it ranked 40th or whatever on this or that survey,'” Garza said. “There are many factors that contribute to our success. It’s not just rankings.”
Still, the excitement surrounding the Best Colleges survey cannot be ignored. Each year it attracts a shower of media attention, providing fodder for cable news talk shows. Clearly, the numbers mean something to somebody; many point to parents.
“I think often times it’s the parents who pay the most attention,” said Einhaus, of Exeter. “You have, say, a father who’s a businessman and is very numbers oriented. That’s the way the world thinks, but it’s more complex than that.”
“I talk to a lot of parents, and some will tell me they want their child to go to one of the schools in the top ten,” said Sklaroff of U.S. News.
“Luckily there are a lot of good counselors telling them that’s not the way to do things.”
“Obviously it’s the rankings themselves that give us the publicity,” continued Sklaroff. “People love horse races. If that brings more people to look at our content, that’s a good thing.”