Fall has arrived (well, almost). And with it comes college football. I have a friend who used to pick the best Saturday each year (in terms of match-ups) and invite a bunch of guys to his house. This was proudly coined the “Sit A–athon.” You accrued points by consuming food and drinks, but lost points by getting out of your seat. Points were deducted at higher rates based on the purpose of your absence, as well as the duration. It made for a day filled with cheering, heckling, and creative ways to win, which is appropriate for football itself, right?
I share this with you not to encourage duplication but simply to illustrate that I am a fan. A big fan. Someone who is often surrounded by others who have adamant opinions about which team is the best. And while I don’t always agree 100% with college football rankings from week to week, I do understand the basis for them: points scored, points allowed, home win vs. win on the road, strength of opponent, and obviously what else happens around the country– all basically valid when deciding on top talent and a comparison of talent. By about week five I’m willing to concede that there is a fundamental difference between number 20 and number 10.
Yesterday, US News and World Report released their annual rankings. Feel free to check out the link but the Clark’s Notes are: not much changed. Still have a bunch of Ivies and schools with old brick and stone ranked highly; no school with an undergraduate population above 10,000 until Cornell at #15; no public school until UC-Berkeley at #20. A complete methodology is here, but quickly here is how it breaks down:
22.5% – Graduation and Retention rates – How good of a job is the school doing a good job retaining, supporting, and graduating students?
22.5% – Academic Reputation – What do academic professionals from other colleges (Presidents, Provosts, Deans, etc.) and counselors on the high school level think about that school?
20.0% – Faculty Resources – How do faculty salaries and the number of students in the classroom compare to other universities nationally?
12.5% – Student Selectivity – What were the school’s admit rate, test score averages, and number coming from the Top 10% out of high school?
10.0% – Financial Resources – What is the average per-student spending on instruction, research, student services, etc?
7.5% – Graduation rate – Did a school’s graduation rate outperform or underperform as it relates to how the US News would have expected?
5.0% – Alumni Giving – At what rate are alumni giving back to their alma mater?
Each year we hear stories from students who say they were not allowed to apply to schools ranked below the Top 25; or thought they could only apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school to which they were admitted. That being said, I wanted to be sure you know how these rankings are formulated.
If you or someone advising you on the college admission process is pointing to the rankings as a source for differentiation, I encourage you to ask these questions:
- Does it matter to me that a President from one college looks favorably upon another (especially accounting for what we know about competition)?
- Is a school’s ability to pay a faculty member $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) of consequence to my college search and decision?
- Do I really think there is a difference in prestige/quality/experience between The (note definite article) University of Virginia and University of Michigan because of the three slot difference putting one inside and the other outside the Top 25?
Here’s Your Job
Your job as a student in the college admission process is to figure out what is most important for YOUR college experience. Admittedly, that job becomes more difficult with every glossy, shiny brochure that shows up essentially saying, “Look. We are all the same. We have happy, smiling students here who bask in the sunshine both on campus and while studying abroad.” So ask this first: why are you going to college? If you start by answering that, you come up with answers like: to explore more deeply inside and outside the classroom, to meet more people passionate about the things I care about, to get a job doing X, to learn more about a certain subject, to have fun, to go to grad school in Y, to spend time in a different part of the country, and so on. That then leads you to narrow down your list because while School Z is highly ranked and despite the fact that they did send you a very clever email (or 12 perhaps), it is in the Midwest, or doesn’t have your major, or has an overabundance of students who looked frustrated and pale on the tour.
It’s important you keep that in mind too, because pretty soon you will start getting an entirely new round of marketing materials from schools touting their rankings. And your parents will be getting emails with press releases and solicitations to buy books or magazines (or more likely online subscriptions or logins to both) with these lists and seemingly infinite subgroupings. Before you use (or are pressured to use) rankings to make a college list or draw some draconian line, and especially when you are sitting on offers of admission and considering where to attend next year, I implore you to consider:
- If a college is perfect in a great location, has a dynamic student body, is a good academic fit, but ranks ten spots below another, should a rank (based on the factors above) matter?
- If the school is outside the Top 100 but is offering me a scholarship and has graduates thriving in the field I want to pursue, should I turn it down for a higher ranked but less affordable option?
You want colleges to understand that a test score does not define you. And you would not want 50 points difference to be the reason one student is chosen over another. Similarly, I’d assert that selecting a school on a number is equally myopic. But most importantly I challenge anyone answering “Yes” to those last questions to debate me in the First Annual Sit Admi–ionsathon.
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