U.S. News and World Report released their annual “America’s Best Colleges” college rankings recently, and it’s no surprise that Harvard is #1 AGAIN. Here’s the question you should ask yourself: Is Harvard REALLY the BEST college in America? While you’re at it, ask this additional question: Are these college rankings as trustworthy as some might think?

If you’re a Harvard alumni, you would most likely say yes, but if you’re like most of us, you wonder why all the HYPE! I’ve heard from numerous Boston based college students this line from their Harvard friends: “the hardest part about Harvard is getting in.” Once you’re there, the quality of education you receive is no better than your average state university. On many levels, it might be considered to be subpar.

There is so much controversy over these rankings, but colleges continue to strive to be on the list. Their motivation is simple: once you’re on the list, you can jack up your tuition because of your bragging rights. Hence colleges fight and claw to be in the top 10 and other schools that offer an excellent education fall short of a ranking at all or end up at the bottom of the list.

The truth behind the college rankings

An in-depth analysis of the rankings, “Playing with Numbers” questions the value of the data collected and the value that the rankings play in the minds of educators, students and their families:

U.S. News rankings don’t measure how much students learn; they don’t measure whether students spend their evenings talking about Jonathan Swift or playing beer pong; and they don’t measure whether students are just there to get through.

The data that U.S. News glides by isn’t the sort that comes easily; it’s buried deep. Do the the big shot professors actually teach? How many hours? Are they good teachers? Are there unknown professors who are better teachers? Or is it the graduate students who teach? What is the intellectual atmosphere like on campus? How frequently do students stay up arguing about Faulkner, aid to Ghana, or whether a wheel chair can be built that goes up and down stairs? What about the campus support and counseling system for students who begin to flail?

When asked if this type of data could be included in the rankings, the response was as follows:

 “…colleges don’t make the data available, it would be too expensive to gather, much of it simply can not be quantified, and if we were to tread into it …we’d get into a dozen, scores of questions.”

 All valid points, but if the rankings aren’t beneficial because they don’t provide that type of data, then why rank colleges at all? Why not simply provide the data that is available and let the consumer decide?

Who provides the data for the college rankings?

The question on all of our minds is who gives the input that provides the data reported by these rankings. Is it the alumni, the students, other unbiased education professionals? Lynne O’Shauhnessy, the College Solutions contributor for CBS MoneyWatch explains the process:

So who determines that Harvard and Princeton are the best universities and that Trevecca and Nova Southeastern are among the crummiest? It’s the same group of people. Each year every school in the “national university” category grades each other. Three administrators from Harvard, for instance, are expected to assign a grade to all the universities in its category, which includes all the Ivies, as well as such far-flung institutions as Purdue, Kent State, Georgetown, Iowa State, UCLA and the University of Tulsa.

So here’s an obvious question: What do three busy administrators at Harvard or any other university know about what goes on at Washington State, Drexel, Wake Forest and dozens and dozens of other schools? And what does the college president at Trevecca know about Tulane, Emory, Dartmouth, Rutgers and all its university peers?

Here’s the equally obvious answer: not much. But, of course, that makes no difference to US News. It’s got to fuel the rankings mania or it won’t sell magazines.

Evaluate the college ranking data and make your own decision

If you’re a savvy consumer you’ll do your own research, look at the numbers by using College Navigator or other search tools, find the best fit college, and ignore all the HYPE. The best list is the one that best suits your career goals, your academic and social personality, and your budget. Prestige is highly overrated when you’re out in the marketplace. Only Harvard alums are impressed by other Harvard graduates. If you graduate with a price tag debt to go along with that so-called impressive degree, you might be kicking yourself for buying into the rankings frenzy.

Should you throw out the baby with the bath water? Absolutely not. Use the list as just another tool available in the college search process. Look at the Best Value Colleges, the Up and Coming Colleges, and the Best A+ Colleges for B+ Students. Don’t concentrate so much on the hype of the rankings but on the information the study provides. Bottom line: don’t buy in to the hype of the rankings; it’s just another list!

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