THE BLOG
10/10/2014 01:21 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

College Rankings: What's the Use?

Which is better: Harvard or Yale?

To answer this question, one might be tempted to refer to the U.S. News & World Report "Best Colleges" ranking. The perennial list arguably is the most popular among the sundry publications ranking America's colleges and universities. It does make for seductive reading. A single publication can help students and parents can make key decisions about their futures in higher education. To be sure, the pitfalls are many.

To compile its lists, U.S. News employs a methodology that depends partly on the higher education institutions to self-report their data. (Dozens of schools have refused to participate in the college beauty pageant surveys, including Reed College and Sarah Lawrence College.) Well, self-reporting opens up a Pandora's box of flaws. To wit, don't look to U.S. News 2015 rankings to help answer which one of these colleges better: Lindenwood University or Rollins College. Apparently, both colleges 'misreported' data. In Lindenwood's instance, the slip-up led to an inflated ranking. The revelation is the latest in a string of inflated data reporting in recent years.

And there's really not much to keep the Lindenwoods of the higher ed world on the straight and narrow. After all, telling lies to government regulators is a crime; to U.S. News & World Report, not so much.

Recently, LinkedIn published a list of its own. It's an intriguing one because
It had analyzed employment patterns of over -- get this -- 300 million LinkedIn members. Apparently, from those 300 million members, LinkedIn figured out "what the desirable jobs are within several professions and which graduates get those desirable jobs." Utilizing its aggregate data, it was then "able to rank schools based on the career outcomes of their graduates."

Before we start racking our brains, trying to come up with a definition for "desirable jobs" (because what does that even mean?), let's state the obvious: this list sounds way too good to be true. It's tempting to blur the veracity about the schools attended and positions acquired on one's social media account. The blog post doesn't state whether or not precautions were taken to insure that none of its members had lied, so it's safe to assume that some did tell a white lie or two.

The list, which is worth taking a look at, is accompanied by a playful infographic to give a visual interpretation of how the study was handled. So, what makes it different? Why should you care? And, more importantly, what should you do with this information?

It's true that there are many other lists that rank schools on a broad range of topics -- from states to programs to even food quality, to name a few -- but LinkedIn's list sets itself apart. It's unique in that it ranks schools based on profession, which can be fun to explore and may even put a school that you've never considered on your radar.

There isn't a definitive list or a guide to tell you how to get the perfect job in a desired profession; and there is (absolutely) no list available to tell you which college to attend to get a job in your desired field. Still, LinkedIn's methodology does not take into account the fact that many college students often change their declared majors. The first step to investing in your future is staying on top of your studies in high school.

As much effort as U.S. News and LinkedIn put into ensuring the objectivity of their rankings, these lists will always be intrinsically flawed. Consumer Reports probably hasn't gotten into college rankings business for the same reason it hasn't gotten into mattress rankings: There's no way to objectively rank something so subjective. They are a fun read, and some might choose Harvard over Yale after reading the rankings.