10/03/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

The Top 100 College Rankings: A Practical Perspective

With the fall semester in session, high school seniors are weighing their options for higher education. The release of news magazines' annual rankings always prompts a lively discussion about what criteria, exactly, constitutes a "Top 100" school. The list can sway student decisions and, of course, cause controversy among our fine institutions and academic leaders. The question future freshmen and their families must ask regarding the list is: "What does it all mean?"

Images, Inconsistencies, and Inaccuracies

The critiques of the ranking systems are plentiful. The most prominent complaints argue that the rankings weigh inputs rather than outcomes, privilege exclusivity over access, and reward excessive expenditures over cost containment. The effect of inaccurately weighing these factors is the perpetuation of a status hierarchy that's divorced from student learning. The ranking systems reward the image of a school, rather than the reality of an educational environment.

Despite recent attempts to move away from reputational rankings to include educational process ratings and outcomes, the metrics for these criteria are crude approximations made with open source data. For example, one attempt to accurately evaluate educational quality from open source data can be found in The problem with this method is that little regard is paid to creating a valid sample population, or to the consistency and reliability of the ratings themselves.

In a similar vein, the measure of success for college graduates is often based solely on lists of corporate officers and their salaries, taken from Are these really the only marks of educational success our society values? In either case, it's important to recognize the lack of reliable data and stable criteria.

In addition to these faults, good things accomplished by a university can sometimes result in bad ratings. A decline in spending for instruction is often deemed a negative in ranking. However, in our current economy, universities are working to increase their instructional efficiency. Whether this occurs through more effective strategies, technology, or other factors, the scaling back of excessive expenditures can actually cause a school's ranking to decline.

Some systems produce rankings that are incredibly stable over time, despite institutions' attempts to improve quality and success. Other ranking systems are extremely volatile. An institution's ranking across different systems can also be dramatically inconsistent because each system is based on different variables and includes different institutions. Consistency and accuracy suffer as a result.

The Reality of Choosing the Right School

So how do prospective students make informed decisions about different institutions? While national rankings might help with an initial screen, students and families I've interviewed place more trust in guidance counselors, friends, social media, websites, and direct mail materials. They want to know about academic and co-curricular opportunities, the quality of professors, admission standards, and cost. In addition, the state of facilities and the achievements of past graduates also influence these vital decisions.

From these more personal criteria, students can then narrow the list of campuses to visit and tour. By the time students visit a campus, they are interested in the feel and fit of that experience. Do they feel they belong and can succeed on campus? Will the experience and the results be worth their commitment? Rankings cannot begin to capture these intangibles, and it's really these factors that will shape the university experience for our students.

The strength of American higher education lies in its variety. This mirrors the diversity of the population it serves. Institutions differ on so many variables -- missions, programs, students, faculty, facilities, and resources -- that it is hard to imagine how any form of comparison, such as national rankings, is even logically possible. Prospective students themselves need to evaluate how effectively an institution uses the resources it has to deliver quality programs that result in meaningful outcomes for students.

The national ranking systems offer a quick glimpse at the possible strengths and weaknesses of a school. However, these rankings are, in many cases, compiled from crude data that lacks reliability or validity. The lists are manufactured to be easily digested and reflect the image of a school, rather than the multitude of factors that create a genuine educational experience. Students must examine the many factors of institutions to truly discover the perfect environment for their continued learning and success.