Look beyond the numbers, focus on what college rankings reveal

Updated: Sept. 24, 2018 at 3:02 a.m.

Let’s face it, despite the incessant criticism of college rankings, annual lists of the top universities still draw the attention of both current and prospective students.

Although they may be popular, rankings are not the ultimate objective of a university. As this year’s rankings rolled out, the University swiftly defended a jump and fall on two college ranking lists.

Colleges may feel the pressure to perform well on these rankings, but there are more important issues to worry about than a number on a list. In the past, GW has gone to great lengths to ensure a favorable ranking. In 2012, GW admitted to submitting inflated information and was later booted from the U.S. News and World Report list because of its unethical actions.

Improving the economic diversity at the University would result in a better campus atmosphere and likely a rise in rank.

Universities should not solely focus on raising their scores. Instead, universities should use rankings to glean insight into their strengths and weaknesses to improve their school, and a better national reputation is bound to follow.

This year’s U.S. News and World Report rankings factored in graduation rates for students with financial need who receive federal Pell Grants and eliminated acceptance rates from its decisions. GW fell seven spots – its largest decrease and lowest ranking in at least a decade – which should reveal areas of focus for the University.

Based on this year’s ranking, GW should target relieving the financial burden of students and improving alumni giving rates, as those are two factors in the group’s ranking that GW has historically struggled with. GW has more students in the top 1 percent of the income scale than in the bottom 60 percent, according to a New York Times report, and GW has been noted for a rich-kid stereotype. Improving the economic diversity at the University would result in a better campus atmosphere and likely a rise in rank.

GW can also use this insight to focus on its alumni giving rate, which is the lowest of its peer institutions and another area U.S. News and World Report analyzes. While the University has focused on improving alumni relations over the past year by hiring a new vice president for development and alumni relations and participating in alumni talks across the country, there is still more work to be done based on GW’s U.S. News and World Report ranking.

Besides the rankings from U.S. News & World Report, there are other annual lists that GW can take insight from. On two annual ranking lists by Forbes, GW’s spots were uneven. While GW was ranked higher on the list of top colleges this year, it scored lower on the list of the best value colleges in the country. Alumni earnings, net price and net debt collectively account for 60 percent of the calculation, according to the methodology for assessing whether a school is worth the cost. This ranking means that GW’s cost of attendance outweighs the return on investment after graduation, so improving education, alumni networking opportunities and cost of attendance could positively affect GW’s score next year.

On the other hand, GW fares better on the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education list. Ranked No. 55 out of 968 schools, GW’s presence on this list that combines national universities and liberal arts colleges is impressive. Among its peer schools, GW’s rank surpassed five out of the 12 colleges, including Northeastern and Wake Forest universities.

In the grand scheme of things, the number that organizations choose to assign to GW doesn’t matter – but what the University does with this information does.

Engagement and environment account for 30 percent of the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education overall ranking. This means that whether or not a school effectively engages with students and provides an inclusive and conducive learning environment is vital for success at any university. Considered individually, however, GW was ranked No. 118 and No. 127, respectively, in these areas, which marks ways in which the University could strive to improve.

Reviewing rankings with these additional analyses in mind, the University’s effort in reaching the suggested goals could indirectly contribute to a better rank on the list. While it is good for the University to improve its place on these lists, it’s more important to take care of student needs, as the ranking is merely a way to expose the problems that GW needs to resolve.

A ranking is just a number. By simply focusing on improving this number, schools ignore the satisfaction of current students, who are the ultimate determinants for a university’s reputation. In the grand scheme of things, the number that organizations choose to assign to GW doesn’t matter – but what the University does with this information does.

Marx Wang, a junior double majoring in political science and philosophy, is a Hatchet columnist.

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