College Rankings and Good Judgment
Now is the time of year when various media outlets traditionally release college rankings. St. John’s College has long opposed the very notion of a single-scale college ranking. We believe that the intrinsic diversity and individual character of our nation’s colleges and universities cannot, and therefore should not, be reduced to a single scale. Doing so gives prospective students and their parents the false impression that some set of “objective” criteria can help them make a judgment that is irreducibly “subjective,” because its essence lies in a proper fit between the character of the institution and the character of the student.
After many years of refusing to participate at all in the rankings generated by U.S.News & World Report—one of the most prominent providers of college rankings—St. John’s this year submitted statistical information for its survey. This change in practice was prompted by engaged parents who increasingly were asking whether the underlying data about St. John’s in U.S. News was reliable. Since we were not submitting information, we could not vouch for its reliability. Although St. John’s would prefer not to be ranked, and has long asked not to be ranked, U.S. News continued to rank us. We concluded, therefore, that we had to supply statistical data in order to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information U.S. News was publishing about us.
The result? St. John’s experienced an unprecedented leap upward in the rankings, as Nick Anderson reported on Tuesday in the Washington Post. Many years ago, when St. John’s did participate, its ranking bounced around from being in the top 25 to being below 100th. These swings alone should give the public pause about the reliability of such rankings, and about the advisability of relying on them at all when making a college decision. I should note that U.S. News itself recommends that its rankings not be regarded as definitive in making college decisions. It advocates instead a “holistic” approach. If this means giving very little—if any—weight to rankings, I agree wholeheartedly.
What should parents and prospective students really look for in a college? In my opinion there are five factors, which I wrote about some time ago for the Huffington Post. You can find them here.