What is Important (or not) About College Rankings

September 13, 2017

In a World that Emphasizes Outcomes, Culture is Key

U.S. News & World Report first published its list of “Best Colleges” in 1983. Today, a profusion of rankings enthralls and mystifies consumers every fall. For high school students and their parents, rankings by sources like U.S. News, Money, and Forbes ostensibly provide objective guidance about academic reputation, affordability, and other supposed measures of college quality and accessibility.

Randy Stiles, Grinnell’s associate vice president for analytic support and institutional research, says studies by the Art and Science Group show that 72 percent of traditional students pay at least some attention to rankings. Seven out of 10 students report that they discuss rankings in person or on social media, mostly with parents and friends.

What’s more, college test scores are predictive of students’ attitudes and behaviors with respect to rankings. The 2016 study reveals that students with ACT test scores of 28 and higher are apt to care more about the prestige associated with higher rankings. But students whose scores are 21 and lower are likely to give rankings more weight in choosing a college.

Incoming Grinnell students seem to bear out that research. While their average ACT score of 30 may indicate awareness of the status a lofty ranking commands, it also appears to signal greater discernment with respect to the importance of rankings in relation to other factors. Stiles says annual surveys of first-year students show that rankings in national magazines show up about halfway down the list of their top 20 reasons for enrollment.

“Year after year students report the main reason for coming to Grinnell is the College’s academic reputation,” Stiles says. “Number two on the list is financial aid, which is not surprising because there is very generous aid given here.”

Rounding out the top five reasons are the size of the College, the ability of graduates to gain admission to top graduate programs, and graduates’ prospects for getting good jobs.

Perception Versus Reality

Illustration of people pointing to college rankings article
It may well be that student perceptions are formed at least in part from rankings, and Stiles emphasizes that Grinnell does exceptionally well in systems that give considerable weight to academic quality and reputation. The challenge for data analysts is to balance those perceptions with what rankings are really saying about college quality, given that each system calculates performance differently.

Stiles says Grinnell’s approach to making sense of the complexities of college quality is to use “multiple lenses” in comparing and benchmarking performance against similar institutions, or what are referred to as the “peer 16.” That includes a review and in-depth analysis of seven different systems plus Princeton Review every year. 

“Our philosophy is not to manage to these systems,” Stiles says, “but to be informed by them, to be able to answer questions about them, and educate anybody who has an interest in what rankings have to do with the whole world of higher education.”

Stiles’ team studies not only Grinnell’s rankings within each of those systems but also the rankings of those peer liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and on the East and West Coasts.

And while Stiles’ job is to analyze rankings from an institutional perspective, his insights also are valuable for parents and prospective students trying to decode the latest list of “best colleges.”

“My advice is to look at a variety of rankings as a first filter in choosing a school,” Stiles says. “You’ve got to do a campus visit to really know. The peer 16 are all fine colleges, and Grinnell is very highly regarded in that mix. You almost can’t go wrong with a liberal arts education at any one of them, but it is culture and context that really matter.”