The independent news organization of Duke University

Finding value in schools beyond their rankings

Last week, the U.S. News & World Report released its latest rankings of colleges and universities in the nation, ranking Duke eighth once again. Even though the U.S. News & World Report's list is often regarded as the foremost guide to college rankings, a variety of publications have tackled this business, employing their unique metrics, which are generally considered incomplete. However, during stressful job recruitment and graduate school application seasons, rankings still tend to occupy many students’ minds. Given that, we question how relevant and useful these rankings are, particularly in the context of recent national dialogue on the importance and utility of a college education.

Many would agree that rankings often do not paint an accurate picture of the quality of education offered at a university. Although the rankings can signal a distinction between private and public institutions or highly selective institutions and lower tier schools, the algorithms utilized to create them are incomplete. With the metrics they use, identifying distinctions between universities in the top twenty schools becomes increasingly difficult since schools in the same tier often have similar resources.

An examination of the metrics employed by the U.S. News & World Report's ranking algorithm highlights some key inadequacies in its evaluations of schools. According to the methodology, more than a fifth of a university's ranking is determined by "undergraduate academic reputation," a composite score comprised of peer assessments of a school's undergraduate academic excellence. Another fifth of a university’s ranking is determined by faculty pay and class size, which are superficially utilized as determinants of quality of instruction. These metrics are convenient quantitative measurements that do not accurately portray any individual college’s quality of teaching. Many students at research universities like Duke, for example, often have to take large introductory classes, but the quality of these classes is not necessarily determined by size.

In an age where student debt has become a topic of national concern, we hope to see ranking systems shift their emphasis toward measures such as the return on investment of a university degree. The average earnings for a school's alumni, the quality of post-graduation career prospects and the level of preparedness of students for their chosen careers or graduate school programs are important metrics to consider while comparing one school to another. Further, the number of postgraduate scholarships awarded to students and the quality of undergraduate research can also demonstrate key differences between school resources.

Additionally, many of the foremost ranking system fail to mention the university’s non-academic space, a key concern for parents and students especially at residential colleges. Measurements of student mental health, physical well being and diversity are important considerations, especially given the current social climates of universities across the country. These rankings neglect to include these factors despite the importance of social well being to academic success.

Even with due consideration to these factors, students may still be drawn toward rankings as a confirmation of the prestige of their schools. Realizing this, we challenge students to think more critically about the other factors that often do not contribute to the prestige of their institution. Your pride in your school should stem from what it has offered you, both in terms of a positive return on investment and a formative experience, granted through an intellectually-stimulating environment, research opportunities and access to a community of high-calibre peers and teachers.

The Editorial Board did not reach quorum for this editorial.

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