Rankings are not definitive. One only has to look at two of the major national rankings to see how dramatically they differ– U.S. News, with its moderate bias toward elite private schools and Forbes, whose quirky criteria result in only five public universities (other than service academies) being ranked among the top 50 in the nation.
(Update December 6, 2012: U.S. News now appears to be leaning even more toward private colleges. Is It Time for Public Universities to Say Goodbye to U.S. News?
Going one step further, to the world rankings of universities, we often find the puzzling result of an American university being ranked far higher in the entire world than it is in the United States alone.
The basic reason for these seeming contradictions is clear and widely recognized: each ranking system uses different criteria, which yield differing results. For example, the world rankings emphasize academic research, and the national rankings focus on graduation rates, funding, class size, or student satisfaction.
What does this mean for the consumer? Should we focus on the alleged prestige of the ranking authority, or accept at face value the lists that are kindest to our favorite colleges? Or should we decide that the rankings are so slanted and disparate that they should all be ignored?
There is a way to use the multiplicity of perspectives to best advantage. But that way requires the reader to devote some time to understanding the different criteria and the weight attached to each. A few minutes can tell us a lot about a particular ranking and enable us to decide as individuals which aspects of that ranking can be useful to us.
For example, the Forbes rankings emphasize student satisfaction, graduation rates, post-graduate success, and average student debt. Post-graduate success counts for a whopping 32.5 percent of the total. What is post-graduate success? Only half of it is in the form of pay; the other half is based on membership in Who’s Who?; on the number of alumni on the Forbes list of prominent corporate officers; and on the number of graduates who are top federal or state officials (added this year).
But if you believe that academic reputation is important, then the rankings are misleading, after the first ten or so schools. While avoiding the use of reputation may appear to eliminate an element of subjectivity from rankings, the fact is that academic reputation is reflected, though indirectly, in the Forbes rankings, as well as in our own. This should not be viewed as a problem, because academic reputation does correlate with other ranking factors, such as the attainment of some prestigious scholarships and, to a lesser extent, graduation rates.
The U.S. News rankings, on the other hand, do emphasize academic reputation and departmental strength as a separate metric, along with the financial resources of each university, class size, and retention and graduation rates. Like the Forbes rankings, but for different reasons, the U.S. News rankings tend to favor private universities, but not so much as the Forbes rankings. The U.S. News rankings do a good job of answering many important questions that consumers have about colleges–but beware of the bias toward private schools.
The various world university rankings are reasonably good at pointing out which American universities have prominent research profiles in the world, and this is useful for consumers who are considering graduate schools or who want to engage in important research as undergraduates. On the other hand, these rankings do not provide a full portrait of more student-centered results, such as class size and graduation rates.
Finally, regarding our own modest attempt to rank honors colleges and programs, we do not use faculty reputation as a metric unto itself, although faculty influence is reflected in other categories, as we have noted above. (We do list the best academic departments in each school; but we do not count them as a metric.) What we emphasize most is honors curriculum, especially its reach across four years.
In reading through our rankings, it is extremely important to look at the individual categories to determine what is important to you. For example, studying abroad may not be important to you, or honors dorms may not be a priority. In that case, focus on curriculum or whatever feature is most important to you rather than the simple numerical ranking.
Finally, and most important in the case of honors programs, please visit the program. If you use our rankings at all, please use them as the basis for questions rather than as a comprehensive answer. As with any ranking, it is only useful as it applies to your individual situation.