college rankings shouldn't affect college choice

What is the purpose of college media rankings?

Consider the goal of these publications and their college media rankings. They aim to get readers to buy them or click on a headline. 

Do they have any skin in the game regarding your student’s success? Absolutely not.

Here are some of the criteria various outlets use to determine the college media rankings:

    • Average six-year graduation rate

    • Faculty compensation

    • Student-Faculty ratio

    • Percent of Full-time and Part-time faculty with a terminal degree in their field

    • Cutting edge facilities

    • Average SAT scores

factors considered in College Media RankiNgs

Average graduation rate

The first factor can give you an idea of how well the school retains its students until graduation. On the other hand, if you think you can only afford four years of undergraduate education, this statistic isn’t very helpful.

Faculty compensation

I suppose that faculty compensation may give you an idea of how highly the school values its faculty. It does not give you an idea of how the school values its student body. In my discussions with faculty, they often cite other benefits such as access to research facilities, resources and colleagues, and the caliber of the students rather than paychecks as the reason they stay with a particular university – not to mention tenure.

Student-Faculty ratio

Student-to-faculty can be a measure of the number of professionals focused on your student in high school, where the sole purpose of an institution is to educate its students. However, in a university setting, the education of the students is not the sole purpose of each of those faculty members. Many of them are focused on research and may teach as few as a single class per semester, and teaching assistants may actually run those classes.

Percent of full-and part-time faculty with terminal degree

Certainly, you want your students’ professors and instructors to be well-informed and up-to-date on developments in their fields. However, what if your student is pursuing a degree in Artificial Intelligence? It is a relatively new field. And there are now quite a few schools with programs focused on artificial intelligence. But how many people with terminal degrees in Artificial Intelligence have decided to enter academia rather than the private sector?

Or, let’s assume that the rankings consider a terminal degree in computer science sufficient to be a terminal degree for artificial intelligence programs. How many of those computer science professors have focused on artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analysis associated with machine learning, the legal and ethical ramifications of artificial intelligence, and the behavioral psychology and biases associated with artificial intelligence algorithms versus aspects of computer science that have been the bedrock of the computer science or applied math field for decades?

Or, have you ever taken a class where you’ve been quite sure that the professor has no real-world experience where real-world experience is critical? Research studies and experiments and their published analyses may not give students what they need to function in the real world. However, the magazine ranking algorithms don’t give weight to accomplishments or experience outside of academia.

Cutting edge facilities

There are at least a couple of factors to consider about cutting-edge facilities on a college campus. While some schools will tout their commitment to a particular field with a new shiny building or amenity, will it be available to your student? Many of these cutting-edge facilities are only available to researchers, graduate students, and, in some cases, companies who pay for access to the facility. And, while I’ve heard people say that a particular facility will put this school “on the map” for a given field, another school will have the newest, shiniest building or facility next year. 

Average SAT scores

Suppose your student is currently going through or has recently gone through the college admissions process. In that case, you probably know that many schools have become “test-optional,” meaning your student does not need to submit their standardized test scores if they don’t feel it will help their application. The test-optional school looks at the student’s application on a holistic basis rather than starting the filtering process based on test scores. Yet, the average standardized test scores still factor into the magazines’ college rankings. So, the magazines’ methodologies have not kept up with changes in the college landscape.

You don’t know if a particular department or school is having an outsize effect on the university’s statistics.

Additional Considerations

Another factor to consider is that these media company rankings are generally based on the schools, not the specific department or school within a university you may be considering. You don’t know if a particular department or school is having an outsize effect on the university’s statistics. Again, using just these factors listed above, perhaps nearly all of the professors in the art and engineering schools in a particular university have terminal degrees in their field. But what if, in the environmental science department, only a few have terminal degrees in their field? How do you know this from these college media rankings? And what if your student is interested in environmental science? Does it matter? Or what if your student is interested in engineering, and you believe it does matter? The percentage of professors with terminal degrees in their field would look artificially low for the engineering school.

And lastly (for now at least), schools constantly move up and down these rankings. If you rely on these rankings, which are released annually, to choose a school, you could just hit on a year when there is an anomaly in the data. For instance, many factors are in flux from the pandemic – class size, faculty size, building projects, real estate acquisitions, etc. The last few years have caused many schools to re-evaluate how they deliver classes, where they want to focus their resources, and, in some cases, their entire mission statement. Just because a particular school shoots up or drops in the rankings may not reflect a baseline change at the school. It may reflect a change in their “competitors,” short-term or long-term economic conditions, or simply a blip in the data.

Ultimately, it is all about your student

What is best for your student? Where will they thrive? There are a lot of other non-financial considerations in the college decision process.  This decision shouldn’t be about prestige. Prestige in a particular field can come and go. In fact, the whole field could come and go. And, if you think about it, you can probably name some schools that were very well-known 30 years ago but are nearly forgotten now. Choose according to the experience you believe your student will have at the particular school – not the experience a magazine editor would like to portray on their pages.

And in twenty years – or even five years, no one will go back to the Something Something News and World Report edition from 2022 to see if your student’s school was the highest-ranked school. You have no control over those college media rankings – now or in 20 years. You could be lucky and choose a school that climbs those rankings over the next 20 years. Northeastern University is a great example. Or, you could be less likely to choose a school whose focus does not align with the ranking methodology of these media outlets and, therefore, decline. Whether the school rises or sinks in the ratings does not affect your student’s education and probably doesn’t matter in the long run. What matters is the formal and informal education your student gains during their college experience.

This article is intended to be educational and thought-provoking rather than financial advice.  When we work together in a financial planning engagement, we discuss your unique personal situation and your unique goals.  During our financial planning process, we examine these factors and many others to determine appropriate financial strategies for YOU.

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