I wrote a post last month on the Kiplinger Best College Values rankings, and the usual suspects are following suit in releasing their lists. US News and World Report and Princeton Review have released their 2012 lists. Although there is some good information in these lists, how should parents and students use these publications?
There is some good information on a lot of colleges collected in one location. You can find contact information, entrance exam scores, graduation rates, cost estimates and more in these lists. If you use the online versions, you can generally sort the list on any field that makes sense to you.
However, be leery of the rankings. The criteria and scoring mechanisms that each of these publications applies are all different. Some might place more weight on graduation rate, others on overall cost, still others on admission requirements and average exam scores. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the vast majority of employers do not care about the name of the college that issues your degree.
Unfortunately, many colleges have caught on to how their overall rank is calculated and found ways to work the system. In an article from USAToday, several instances of outright cheating have been noted; either a school falsely reports data or they do something like have their incoming freshmen retake their entrance exam to boost score averages. Or, they do something more subtle like increase the amount of merit aid awarded to inflate their average aid amounts, while the average student doesn’t see any more grant or scholarship money because they don’t qualify for merit aid.
What started out as a guide to parents and students has turned into a weapon that the colleges hope to gain control of. From the same article, fully 70% of all colleges use their rankings in marketing materials sent to prospective students. However, a study found that of the criteria used in college selection, the national ranking averages 11th most important among incoming freshmen. To say that the rankings are more important to the colleges than to the students would be an accurate assessment.
Many of these lists ignore the two-year community and junior colleges. I believe that overlooking those schools would be a mistake, especially for a student that doesn’t have the scholarships or financial backing to attend a four-year institution. Be sure that you include those schools in your short list of institutions.
To be fair, the majority of colleges play by the rules. Some colleges have improved their rankings because they have done a good job to address items that are of value to the student. These areas include faculty-student ratio, class size, and programs aimed at retention and graduation rate. As you consult these lists, pay more attention to these indicators.
To derive true value, colleges need to begin tracking their students after graduation. Students attend college to enhance their career options and employability. What if colleges tracked, at the one-year and five-year mark after graduation, things like percent employment, percent employed in their major field of study, average salary, promotability, number of businesses started by graduates, and so forth? To me, this information gets to the heart of the value that colleges should provide – how attending their school benefits students in the marketplace.
In summary, don’t put too much stock in the rankings. Colleges care about their spot on the chart, but employers do not. Choose a school that offers your major, that is affordable, and that is accredited. Use these lists as an appendix to your search and not to drive the college selection process.