In Defense of Rankings

04/15/2012 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2012

U.S. News and World Report, Forbes, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, College Confidential -- it often seems that there are as many university rankings as there are universities to rank. But rankings' popularity does not insulate them from attack. Deriding these lists has become something of a pastime both inside and outside the world of higher education. For instance, in a major story printed last year in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell chastised the U.S. News and World Report's famous rankings, writing that is "an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be comprehensive and heterogeneous."

Whether critics are taking on the methodology or, like Gladwell, the entire practice itself, they share the concern that U.S. News, Forbes, Washington Monthly and their ilk play an unhealthy role in the college selection process.

I disagree. Nearly all but the most frivolous rankings provide some level of useful consumer information. When approached with care, these rankings provide a useful tool to prospective students and universities alike.

With more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States, such a tool is an absolute necessity, particularly for uninitiated students. Promising students are inundated with view books, college fairs, and emails from an intimidating number of universities. Rankings are a great place for education seekers to start sorting out which of these offers they should be paying attention to. Even as a blunt instrument, they allow prospective students to zero in on which institutions offer the best education as well as the best fit for them.

Rankings not only drive students towards the better institutions, but they drive the institutions themselves to improve. The better university lists focus on certain key measurements like student-to-faculty ratio, alumni involvement, and graduation and retention rates. While these measures cannot by themselves lift the quality of a university's offerings, it would be folly to ignore their impact. These are areas on which every university should focus their attention. The result? When schools improve what needs to be improved, they are rewarded with a rankings boost.

Even when critics accept that rankings might have some value, they often worry that these lists are essentially misleading, making students think that they alone are the sole, true evaluators of a university's worth. Yet in seeking to support prospective students, this argument undercuts their intelligence, assuming our best and brightest are not intelligent enough to judge a given list and give it appropriate weight in their deliberations. Those who reject rankings for this reason seem to believe that our applicants have neither the savvy nor the logic to process the admittedly imperfect information presented by college lists. That would be a sad statement of our view of our future students. The truth is that students are indeed smart enough to digest this information with the necessary grain of salt, ultimately benefiting as consumers from the greater degree of institutional transparency the rankings demand.

To this last point, it is important to note that there is no single master list, no infallible indicator of The Best University. Different publications and services employ different methodologies, emphasizing different measures and algorithms. And there is more than a grain of truth in Gladwell's critique: it is very unlikely that one ranking will capture and synthesize everything a student is looking for. It is important for prospective students to look at many different rankings, and not just a single list.

Although rankings make an easy target, they are not going away -- and that is good news for students and parents. Better still, the New York Times reported recently that an effort to rank colleges by educational efficacy is gaining steam. Joined with other systems that emphasize other key qualities of universities, this new measure will ensure that prospective students will continue to get a clearer view of what they can expect from higher education.