Jessie Ewing, a transfer student, grew up as a die-hard K-State fan. She began her college education at Johnson County Community College, but as she completed credits and prepared herself to transfer to a university, there was an architect program that was a better fit than K-State’s. Despite her love for the school, she chose K-State’s biggest rival as her school of choice: KU. Yet her decision wasn’t based on the fact that KU is ranked 17 spots higher than K-State on the U.S. News & World Report for best colleges. Her decision was based on how well the credits transferred, the professors at KU and the better suited architect program KU has.
Despite the thought that rankings of universities are the best way to choose a university, many people nowadays want to find out for themselves the truth of what really works for them.
At one time university rankings were considered the best way for new students to choose which college to attend. When U.S News & World Report’s best schools ranking came out in 1983, its goal was to help students with one of the biggest decisions in their life: choosing a college. Some ranking systems include Forbes, Money and The Princeton Review, but the most notable is U.S. News & World Report.
In an article in U.S. News & World Report, chief data strategist, by Robert Morse writes, “The editors back then, led by Marvin L. Stone, thought the project was worth attempting because a college education is one of the most important—and most costly—investments that people ever make.”
Today, rankings are no longer considered the chief factor in deciding where students go for college. In 2016, the University of California—Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute conducted a survey on what factors help students decide which colleges to attend. Out of 137,456 first-year students, only 17.9 percent stated that national rankings were a factor in their decision.
According to the survey, the number-one factor for students to choose a specific college is based on students’ chances to get a job after graduation. And in a 2015 survey conducted by New America’s Education Policy Program, the number one factor was that the colleges offered programs students wanted.
Ewing said her main reason for choosing KU was that she had the credits for the architect program and that she “liked how the program was setup.”
The question arises whether or not the U.S. News & World Report on best colleges is outdated. A study by Jacob Fowles and George Frederickson, both professors in the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration, found that many colleges don’t change their rankings by much.
“What we find as a result of this process is that it seems to lead to a lot of macro-level stability in those rankings and not a lot of very dramatic year-to-year changes,” said Jacob Fowles, in a KU news release.
The study also implied that rankings protected “privilege” for universities with historically high rankings.
“What the rankings really are doing is continuously reinforcing privilege. The rankings themselves have become a powerful social force that largely preserves and enhances the visibility of that historical prominence,” Fowles said.
As for KU, it bases its success not only on rankings, but on factors such as retention and graduation rates.
“Although rankings are important, they are just one factor KU uses to measure its success,” said Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, director for news and media relations at KU. “KU also tracks its performance compared to peers and focuses on university priorities. That includes student retention, graduation rates and increasing the enrollment of both freshmen and all students.
As people move more toward the practical and realistic factors in college decision making, Frederickson said he believes rankings will play less of a factor in universities’ marketing.
“University strategic plans with goals that include being in the top 10 or the top 50 are misguided and bound to fail,” Frederickson said in a KU news release. “They also show a lack of creativity. Real university change takes many years, persistence and steady leadership.”
Just like Ewing chose KU based on what suited her best, so are many others. And while rankings at one time served as an indicator whether or not a university was doing a good job, they now may be outdated.