The Ridiculousness of College Rankings

Enough with these college rankings already!

I know we’ve become a Buzzfeed-addicted, list-obsessed, top-10-hungry society (thanks a lot Dave Letterman), but let’s take it down a notch.  The lists and rankings associated with colleges and universities have grown ridiculous, and are given way too much airplay.

First of all, let’s remember that there are over 7,000 institutions of higher education in the United States alone, and nobody, absolutely nobody, can devise a way to rank them fairly.  The maker of your favorite “most beautiful college campuses in the U.S.” ranking has probably only been to the 10 that appear on his/her list.  There could be a State University of Hog Waller with a central campus pretty enough to make Leonardo DaVinci weep, but it’s not making that list.

If you are reading a ranking or list, do yourself a favor and make sure to read the criteria by which the list was devised.  Let’s examine the most well-known of them all – the U.S. News Best Colleges ranking.  Once you track down the selection criteria, you’ll find some interesting nuggets of information, such as the fact that they say the criteria can change from one year to the next.  Also, graduation rates matter less than faculty salaries.  A university can’t even make the list if it doesn’t use ACT or SAT scores for admission, or if it has a higher number of non-traditional students.  

I’ll give U.S. News credit for trying to take a complex system and give it some order, and my criticism is more in how these rankings are promoted and used as “the” standard for how to select a college or university.  There is also danger in college administrators making decisions not based on institutional mission, but on how to move up the charts!

This line can be found when digging through their criteria: “The host of intangibles that make up the college experience can't be measured by a series of data points.”  Every press release about these rankings should start with that sentence.

When it comes to bad methodology and criteria, Newsweek takes the gold medal with its ranking of the top 25 college fraternities.  Did you see this one get passed around on Facebook along with a little false bravado?  Here is what Newsweek lists as its criteria (with some commentary from yours truly):

"We first considered the number of active collegiate chapters for each."
Sounds reasonable right?  Size matters after all.  Well consider how this criteria rewards fraternities that keep terrible and dangerous chapters open. 

"We also considered the number of alumni who are currently members of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the alumni, if any, who became president."
The U.S. Congress has an approval rate of 13%.  Maybe they should have considered fraternities that have kept their members out of that dysfunctional cesspool.  Your fraternity could have graduated someone who solved the clean water crisis in Africa, but you’ll fall below the one across the street that graduated someone like Anthony Weiner.

"Lastly, we considered the amount of money the fraternity's non-profit fund donated to 501(c)(3) organizations."

Most fraternities have a foundation that is focused on supporting the education and growth of the chapters and their members.  That’s what supporting foundations are supposed to do.  If your fraternity’s foundation is collecting and shipping off funds to other nonprofits, you may want to ask about that at the next convention.  Nothing against philanthropy and supporting charitable causes, but that’s what the chapters are supposed to do.  That’s what fulfilling the mission and values of the organization is all about.  Your foundation is there for you!

This is the criteria by which to measure fraternity excellence?  What about academics, leadership development, character education, etc.? 

If you think this rant against rankings is sour grapes, please know that I attended a university that frequently appears on ranking lists (Miami University) and my fraternity (Theta Chi) was ranked #4 on the Newsweek list I just sought to discredit.  I just know now how dumb these lists can be.

So what should we do instead?  If you are a high school student searching for your college or university, or a first-year student searching for your fraternity or sorority, I encourage you to set the rankings aside and consider something much more important:  fit.

When you step onto that campus, or into that fraternity house, does it feel like a place in which you can have a significant experience?  When you meet the professors, fellow students, and members, can you imagine them helping you grow?  Is there a balance of comfort and challenge?  What does your gut say?  Probably something wiser than the Huffington Post could ever tell you.

Yes – I get it.  Rankings can be a conversation-starter.  They can be a way to start your journey.  If you must use them, be cautious.  Find the fine print and read the selection criteria.  

And for those of you who just can’t get by without a ranking system or list of some kind…allow me to present to you the official Fraternal Thoughts ranking of  the Nation’s Top College for overall Research, Food Service, Biking Trails, Tailgating, Tradition, School Spirit, Parking, Marching Bands, Environmental Friendliness, Residence Hall Ceiling Height, Wednesday Night Social Scene, Ornamental Shrubbery, and Campus Chipmunk Obesity, with the prettiest campuses, best mascots, and friendliest students:

1. Yours!*

*You may now share this enthusiastically on social media.