Rankings that Resonate

September 13, 2017

Why some college rankings are more relevant than others

Among all of the annual rankings, U.S. News’ “Best Colleges” remains the source that students use most widely to compare academic quality among 1,800 U.S.-based schools. “People pay most attention to U.S. News,” says Randy Stiles, Grinnell’s associate vice president for analytic support and institutional research. “It gets a lot of readership.”

In the U.S. News system, the categories given the most weight are reputational assessments by counselors and peers (22.5 percent), graduation/retention rate (22.5 percent), and faculty resources (20 percent). Student selectivity rank is next (12.5 percent), followed by financial resources (10 percent), graduation rate performance (7.5 percent), and alumni giving rank (5 percent).

Stiles says the key take-away from the 2018 U.S. News rankings (released in 2017) is that Grinnell’s overall rank of 18th is stable. “In fact we’re improving lately in overall rank. We have a great academic reputation,” Stiles says.

“We’ve also become much more selective,” he says. “Just a few years ago Grinnell was 38th among liberal arts colleges for selectivity. Last year, we were ninth in that category.”

To illustrate the seven-year data lag that can occur in published rankings, Stiles points to a blip in attrition among the student group that came to Grinnell in the fall of 2012. “That cohort will have a negative impact in our graduation rate when U.S. News rankings are published in 2019,” Stiles says. “We know that’s going to happen, and we’re working hard on graduation/retention as part of the quality initiative that’s connected to the upcoming accreditation review.”

Still, all ranking systems do not use the same measures, and a large readership for U.S. News does not necessarily make it the last word in college quality. Stiles says one of the more discriminating ways to view rankings is in how a system resonates with a college’s core values. One that gives particular weight to criteria consistent with Grinnell’s values is Washington Monthly’s ranking of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.”

Washington Monthly’s primary factors are social mobility, research, and service, each of which counts for one third,” Stiles says. “There are lots of details beneath those major categories, but the point is that different systems attribute different weights to measures that are relevant for what’s going on at a college.”

Applicable to any consideration of college rankings, Stiles says, is sociologist William Cameron’s famous quote: Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

He encourages students and parents to look at a variety of rankings as a “first filter” in choosing a school.

“Remember that the data lags,” Stiles adds. “Also, cumulative earnings matter; rankings based on graduate salaries five years out do not tell the full story for a college like Grinnell that produces a lot of graduate-degree candidates.

 “Culture and fit are so important,” he adds. “You’ve got to do a campus visit and check out several institutions to really know.”