RIT President on Deficiencies of College Rankings

Bill Destler, president of Rochester Institute of Technology, recently posted on the Huff Post College Page that college rankings are universally deficient because of their focus on “inputs” such as SAT scores and high school gpa’s.  He might well have added financial resources to the list.

Although we have published a de facto ranking of public university honors programs that isn’t based on any of these criteria, we agree that all rankings, including our own, have deficiencies. 

We also agree with Destler that the annual Forbes rankings are the most deficient of all because, even though they claim to rely on output measures, they also focus on “data” from Rate My Professor and Payscale.Com.  The first is subjective, and the second reduces the value of a college education to dollars and cents. 

The Forbes rankings also have a strong bias against public universities, part of which comes from a desire on the part of the people behind the rankings to “reform” public universities so that they become places for cheap, assembly-line education rather than research institutions with outstanding academic programs.

Destler also points out that rankings based on return on investment will only affirm what most people already know:  universities with large numbers of STEM grads, especially in engineering, will necessarily fare better in the rankings because engineering as a field often provides excellent starting salaries for new graduates.

Destler is also correct in claiming that all rankings distort the value of universities to the extent that their rankings methodology apply uniform input measures to essentially dissimilar institutions.  Grad rates for a private university that accepts only 6 percent of its applicants will clearly be higher than a college with a 65 percent acceptance rate based on the extremely selectivity of the former.

In the case of our rankings, we would say that the overreach is somewhat less severe, since all the honors programs we follow have much lower acceptance rates than most colleges and because our dominant category is honors curriculum, which can be extensive and demanding regardless of admissions requirements.

In addition, we have two basic rankings, Overall Excellence and Honors Factors Only.  The former does generally favor honors programs in universities that have more uniform excellence across the student body because there is a metric for achieving Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, and Goldwater awards by all students, and not just those won by honors students.

But Honors Factors excludes the metric for prestigious award and is based strictly on honors-specific elements such as curriculum, grad rates, honors housing, and study-abroad programs.

In the end, our rankings are only suggestive, not definitive.  The same is true for all rankings.  They are best used to suggest possible routes on the journey rather than pinpointing the final destination.