Question – How should I use college rankings – Money’s article “Special Report: Best College Values 2015” ?

This morning I got my copy of Money (note, the only reason I get this magazine is was part of a deal to get the Economist).  In this months magazine there is an article on the best college values for 2015: Special Report: Best College Values 2015.  I’ll talk to the idea of rankings and ratings.

Rankings and ratings are by far, the easiest way to figure out whether something is better than something else based on a system of measurement.  However, rankings are created by joining together a number of numbers (metrics), and the real question about a particular ranking for a given system is are those ratings relevant to what you are interested in?  When I was picking colleges, we used Maclaen’s (a Canadian magazine), and I remember wondering why the number of books in the library mattered to my undergraduate education (that metric is no longer used).  Sure there might be some indirect learning value to the number of books in the library, but should that have been a key metric in the ranking?

In the Money article, there are some interesting categories.  The tuition price and potential financial aid can be very important to some people, but they left out the difference between in- and out- of state differences.  The category “early career earnings” is biased to schools that focus primarily on engineering and technology.   For both “value added grade” and “career services” these are based on a letter grade.  This means there is a rubric or criteria definition that is used to categorize a university in a grade.  In all, I think the rankings provides you with some numbers that you might consider when picking schools to apply for.

The second lesson for looking at rankings is to look into how each category is defined and calculated.  In the case of the number of books, what was the count if there were duplicate books?  In this article, quality of education is based on areas such graduation rates, student-to-faculty ratio, and RateMyProffessor grades.  What do these metrics reflect and can they be manipulated?  The answer is it’s hard to say for your individual case and, yes, the stats can and are manipulated.  For example, here are some ideas on manipulating the student to faculty ration.

So how can you use these ratings?  Well, these numbers and rankings should be part of the information you collect to make your decision.  If anything, use the bottom of the list as a warning that those particular schools might have problems, but check if the real reason they are at the bottom is meaningful to your situation.  The university I work at, Miami University, is ranked/tied at 171st.  Would I recommend Miami over any of the higher ranked schools?  Yes.  If you live in Ohio, the major you want to pursue is available, and you’re interested in active early engagement with professors and early exposure to research, then yes.

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