September 12, 2000

Breaking the Ranks

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College rankings annually line up and compare a diverse collection of academic institutions, but for one seeking to make sense of the rankings the determination may not be quite as academic.

Cornell, in the Sept. 11 issue of U.S. News and World Report (U.S. News), placed tenth in national university rankings to join six other Ivy League institutions at the pinnacle of higher education.

While university administrators openly challenge the breadth of knowledge that a singular numerical ranking can provide, many also recognize the impact of a ranking that appears in a magazine that distributes a circulation of two million copies.

“[The college rankings] have been very influential right from the start. You may notice that since they’ve started, a lot of publications have started [ranking colleges too],” said Sally Baker, Harvard University spokesperson.

Since Ivy League institutions occupy the top three spots, and none rank lower than the 15th, the emphasis that U.S. News places on reputation is little surprise. In fact, reputational scores make up the single most influential determinant of a university’s placement on the rankings, contributing to 25 percent of the magazine’s ranking formula, according to U.S. News’ website,

“The U.S. News ranking formula gives the most weight to academic reputation scores, because a diploma from a distinguished college helps graduates get good jobs or gain admission to top-notch graduate programs,” says U.S. News.

For Harvard, Baker said, “I think the name recognition was there before the rankings even started.”

Nonetheless, Harvard’s second-place showing this academic year “definitely underscores the reputation that Harvard had before and continues to have,” she added.

After reputation, the U.S. News formula takes into account more objective measures — such as faculty resources and graduation and retention rates. As trends in higher education shift, the method by which experts study universities evolves. Thus, U.S. News suggests to students that they place the most emphasis on the lastest rankings over orders generated in the past.

Standards in higher education favor factors such as job placement and graduate school admissions which are begining to dominate the rest of the considerations that go into the university’s rank, such as the makeup of students and faculty.

“This shift was consistent with increased emphasis that educators, researchers and policymakers have placed on results when comparing and evaluating educational programs,” U.S. News said.

The arbitrary nature of the rankings effectively provides admissions offices with an even greater incentive to actively recruit students. Otherwise, students may take into account too many statistics and not enough of the details that cannot be translated into numbers.

“We hope students are not basing their decisions on rankings, because that really doesn’t tell you the whole story at all,” said Maria Laskaris, director of admissions at Dartmouth College.

“We try to convey the distinctive and definitive aspects of the university,” she said, adding that while a ranking of national universities serves well to help a student select a range of universities, it cannot bring one to a final decision.

Rather, admissions officers urge students to try tapping the genuine pulse of a university, a unique environment that each different school exhibits — and an academic setting that does not change with the trends of the time.

“When your ranking goes down, probably not a lot has changed on campus,” Laskaris said.

“The college can’t really afford to live by the rank and neither can the students,” Baker added. “It is an interesting conundrum when you’re Princeton and you’re number one. What do you do next year [if you fall in the rankings]?”

Predictably, the universities that compel students to forgo admission at Dartmouth in favor of their own offers, Laskaris said, are colleges atop the rankings, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

However, she added, this loss is not a cause for concern at Dartmouth.

“It’s healthy that students look at a broad range of schools,” she said.

According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, there are 228 national universities, 147 of which are public and 81 private — all of which compete for position on the rankings.

National universities entertain students with various majors as well as master’s and doctoral programs. Frequently, such universities also receive grants of federal funds to advance research that will ultimately benefit the nation’s collective research capabilities, according to

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch