College Rankings Aren't Meaningless; They're Just Misleading

Tim Goral's picture

"An Ivy League degree changes everything."

I’ve heard those exact words dozens of times and inferred their sentiment hundreds more. They undoubtedly were a major contributing factor in the 250,000 applications to the 8 Ivies this past year. But with only 14,000 freshman slots available, there will be to be a lot of disappointed families when decisions are announced in a few days.

Unfortunately, I’ve helped perpetuate that perception. And I contributed to making college admissions more competitive. For 30 years I’ve co-authored best-selling books and provocative articles about how to improve one’s chances of being accepted at a “top” college.

The first edition of our book Getting In! revealed what went on behind the admission committees’ closed doors, and introduced the concepts of packaging and positioning to the college application lexicon. The newest edition adapts the same principals to the digital age and urges kids to scrub their Facebook pages. But the core message is still: good colleges are not looking for the well-rounded kid; they’re looking to put together the well-rounded class, and you need a hook.

What were revelations in 1983 are common knowledge today – at least among the chattering class of college-bound students, parents and counselors. They also don’t have to be told that the odds of getting into a “highly selective” school are ridiculously low. Brown and Dartmouth will each accept about 9% of applicants; Cornell, Northwestern, and Georgetown about 16% And Harvard, Yale, and Stanford? Forget about it: under 7%!

Wanting to attend a “name” school isn’t illogical. With the sticker price of attending all of these private universities nudging $250,000, parents are heeding college administrators’ advice that college should not be looked at as an expense, but rather as an investment. And there is nothing illogical in parents wanting a better return on their investment. A college’s brand value – whether that school’s name will be recognized and open employers’ doors – is a reasonable measure of ROI. (To be clear: an Ivy League degree does not guarantee someone success or even a job. But make no mistake: it does open doors more quickly for an interview.)

What is missing from this calculus is that colleges are very different. Dartmouth is not at all like Brown; Princeton is completely different from Yale; and Georgetown shouldn’t be discussed in the same breath as Northwestern. Colleges, counselors, and parents talk a lot about finding the right “fit” between a school and a student. In reality, the process is dominated by reputation.

The problem is that college reputation has been hijacked by rankings. Far too many “highly ranked” colleges are gaming the rankings and trying to attract more and more applicants – when the particular college is actually a poor “fit” for many of the kids applying. Colleges want to attract and reject more kids because, perversely, that “selectivity” improves a college’s ranking.

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