Tuesday marks the 30th year of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings, the granddaddy of the campus rating game.
The results aren’t all that different this time around. As usual, there’s plenty of debate about their value and validity. Some schools will tout them and some will ignore them.
For years, the popular U.S. News list has spawned copycats from other mainstream publications, including several high-profile “best buy” lists that are coveted by universities and pored over by prospective students.
More recently, though, there’s a torrent of rankings from not-so-mainstream organizations. They purport to measure anything and everything imaginable, from best food, best dorms, most hipster students, most liberal students, best party schools, least rigorous academics, even “druggiest” or “nerdiest” campuses.
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Some are real head-scratchers. Consider this one, released by www.hercampus.com: “The Most Beyoncé Colleges.” UNC-Chapel Hill is 8th on that list.
The category, apparently, is meant to showcase campuses that are “flawless,” just like the superstar singer. It cited UNC-CH’s 58-42 female-to-male ratio: “Although this relative lack of eligible bachelors means there are a lot of ladies without a ring on it, the UNC girls don’t buy into the hype, and they don’t let that stop them from having a good time,” said the entry on the website geared toward college women. “All the single ladies, now put your hands up!”
Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said he was speechless about that one. “We’re honored to be in Beyonce’s company,” he quipped.
The same website ranked Warren Wilson College near Asheville fourth in “Hippie Haven Colleges” and Wake Forest University eighth in “Most Attractive Men.”
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University, said he receives notice of a new ranking in his inbox almost every day.
“A number of outlets have figured out one way to get attention is to do a ranking,” he said. “Who doesn’t like rankings?”
Farmer said college rankings have proliferated like kudzu. “The more that have come out,” he said, “the more original in their approach.”
Students don’t take such rankings seriously, he said, adding that such “measures” might actually be a bit of a de-stressor. “It’s not a bad thing to have a little fun with all of this,” he said.
Some rankings are of dubious nature, based entirely on anonymous online surveys. Some don’t disclose their ranking criteria, unlike U.S. News, which publishes four pages explaining its methodology.
The magazine takes into account graduation and retention rates, peer surveys, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources and alumni giving. The financial measures tend to tilt the ranking in favor of wealthy private universities.
Editors maintain that the U.S. News ranking, while a powerful tool, is only “an excellent starting point” for students’ college search.
Even U.S. News delves into narrow subcategories, including high school counselors’ top college picks and best colleges for veterans, where N.C. State University ranks 18th. NCSU is also on the publication’s “A-plus Schools for B students.”
‘College access index’
Beyoncé ratings aside, some new rankings aim to hold colleges accountable for performance and shed light on financial aid practices.
On Monday, the New York Times produced a “college access index,” which analyzed data for every college with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent. UNC-CH came out well on that measure, as the third-most economically diverse top college, behind Vassar and Grinnell.
The Obama administration is devising a federal ratings system for U.S. colleges based on outcomes. So far, the idea has been feared and criticized by many higher-education leaders. A framework for the new system could be released this fall.
Farmer said he has no problem with the various rankings. More information is generally a good thing, he said, but too much reliance on rankings “runs the risk of reducing a complicated decision to a simple one.”
Meanwhile, the lists keep coming.
Duke rated the seventh “Most Insta-Worthy Campus” for its pretty setting, suitable for Instagram posting, according to hercampus.com. UNC-CH was 10th.
“I was more excited to see we were ahead of Carolina,” Schoenfeld said, “so obviously it’s accurate.”