College Rankings Do Not Make a College’s Reputation
I’m always concerned when a media source tries to determine a college’s reputation by using a survey of a single target population in its college rankings. US News, for example, places unfair weight on the results of “reputation surveys” of school guidance counselors as well as senior college administrators. I seriously doubt that that the survey respondents are familiar with every college that they rank—and they rank only a fraction of the schools in a given category—as well as those that they don’t.
Last week UC-Berkeley and UCLA touted their high top-ten appearances in the 2018 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. These college rankings were based on an invitation-only survey of published senior academics around the world. Each respondent was permitted to list only 15 schools that she considered to be the most reputable for teaching and research. Harvard ranked first in this survey, no surprise. Not only is Harvard the most endowed university; two-thirds of its students pursue degrees at its graduate and professional schools. Clearly Harvard can afford to attract and nurture the best researchers.
In these cases a college’s reputation was made on a collection of the personal thoughts and opinions of a school’s past, present, and possibly its future from a personal viewpoint. It’s quite possible for college administrators and professors to vote for the school where they are employed, or the one that granted them their highest degree. It’s also quite possible that school counselors with many years of experience chose schools that were most familiar to them through professional relationships as well as the past and present interests and successes of their students.
But these college rankings are unnecessary for high school students who are entering the college admissions cycle for the very first, and hopefully the only, time, and they are unnecessary for their parents. Neither college administrators nor scholarly professors nor guidance counselors currently are, or have most recently been, undergraduate college students. However, you can do a little research and determine a college’s reputation for yourself.
When you research and visit colleges, consider a college’s reputation in some different ways. For example:
- Does the admissions office openly publish the most recent four-year graduation rate, or can the admissions officers provide this information? In this case you would want to know about the class that entered in 2013. Some of the freshmen who arrived in the fall of 2014 might still be working towards completing their degrees. If these students finish by December, a college will likely count them as having finished in four years or less.
- If the answer to this question is “no,” what information can they provide? You want a four-year graduation rate; five years is okay only for dual bachelors and advanced degree programs as well as co-op schools that alternate periods of full-time school and full-time work. Six years is also only for dual degrees as well as the pharmacy doctorate (PharmD). Aside from these exceptions, do not take the six-year graduation rate as a substitute for a four-year one. Colleges are required to track a freshman class over six years for financial aid purposes. However, a six-year progression to a bachelor’s degree is nothing to brag about when most of the undergraduates are full-time students.
- What percentage of the freshman class returns for their sophomore year? Freshman to sophomore retention is the simplest measure of student satisfaction. Freshmen either return because they are satisfied with the school that they chose, or because no other school will be more satisfactory, if they transferred out. Sophomore to junior satisfaction is also important. The sophomore year is when students commit to a major. If a college consistently loses more than a fifth of the full-time freshman class after the first year, and/or as much as a third by the end of the sophomore year, something is wrong. Either the admissions office does not know their market, they accepted students who were less likely to succeed in order to fill a class. It is also possible that many students could not find an academic fit, or could not cover costs. As a consumer you are within your right to ask why a college has a difficult time retaining full-time freshen and sophomores, and to expect an answer from the admissions office.
- When you meet student ambassadors on campus, or talk with students on your own, ask them not only why they chose their school, but also the other schools they considered. Knowing the comparisons they made, and how they made them, provides useful information about a college’s reputation to help you to make your own personal ranking of the schools on your college list. As you visit more schools, make note of schools that are repeatedly mentioned by the student ambassadors on each campus, as well as the reasons that they turned them down, or if they were denied admission. I’ve learned that the reasons are often the same.
A college’s reputation, as you will learn when you receive the answers to these questions, should be based on the achievements of its current students as well as its most recent graduates. They are the best representation of the customers the college has served.
Want to see how information on a college’s reputation impacts the university’s in the Big Ten conference? Contact me for a free PDF at stuart@educated quest.com.