EDITORIAL: Rankings just one measure of college quality

Illustration by Rob Gebelhoff/ robert.gebelhoff@marquette.edu
Illustration by Rob Gebelhoff/ robert.gebelhoff@marquette.edu

Americans love rankings. We rank fantasy football picks, popular music singles, employees and students. Lists with titles like the “Top 10,” the “Top 100” or “Worst 50” are a staple in popular culture, and we have added universities to the list of lists.

This month U.S. News and World Report published its 2014 college rankings. Marquette was listed No. 75 among the list of 400 “national universities,” an “eight-spot jump” according to campus marketing. Six other schools were also ranked at 75.

The ranking was dominant on the university homepage, advertised on television screens and posters  around campus and tweeted out to thousands of followers: “Marquette jumps eight spots on U.S. News’ annual Best Colleges list.”

So what?

Other titles bestowed by U.S. News accompanied this update, including the No. 49 “Best Value School” and the No. 14 “Up and Coming School.”

College rankings such as those published by U.S. News are highly arbitrary. U.S. News often changes its criteria, and U.S. News may value different criteria than Forbes, the Princeton Review, and other organizations.

Because of its methodology, reputation and widespread use, the U.S. News rankings are the most-reported in higher education. For instance, Marquette marketed three U.S. News rankings this year while not marketing rankings from its competitors.

While Marquette is not alone in marketing these rankings, they seem too arbitrary for the university to dedicate any resources, time or effort publicizing them. While Marquette’s “No. 75” ranking is an eight-spot jump from 2013, realizing it could also be ranked at 81 with the ties factored in is less than impressive.

According to U.S. News, the 2014 methodology underwent “significant changes” to focus more on the students universities produce rather than the students they accept. This could account for Marquette’s number jump as well as the changing rank of other schools, as noted in the U.S. News report.

These rankings are not the only titles Marquette claimed in 2014. The Princeton Review named Marquette the ninth school on its “Most Religious Students” list, a ranking of the 20 institutions that have the most religious students which is based on student survey responses. The Princeton Review also named Marquette a Best Midwestern College and included it in its unranked list of “The Best 378 Colleges.”

Similarly, Forbes magazine ranked Marquette 176 on its list of “America’s Top Colleges,” 127 for “Private Colleges,” 87 for “Research Universities” and 31 “in the Midwest.” The Princeton Review and Forbes use a similar methodology to U.S. News. Each is carefully calculated using similar data, but that doesn’t make one list more or less valid than another. They are all relatively arbitrary.

For instance, part of the U.S. News report was Marquette’s rating as an “A+ School for B Students.” The title can be confusing – encouraging students with “less than stratospheric test scores” to apply while simultaneously discouraging students with those stellar test scores from taking Marquette seriously. Marquette students’ average ACT scores suggest that campus is already a magnet for students from the entire academic spectrum, which makes pointing out the “averageness” of the university unnecessary.

Putting emphasis on an arbitrary ranking — regardless of the source — is a waste. Moving eight possible spots in the U.S. News report does not truly gauge our university’s progress in the past year. Universities like Marquette should make it clear that while the rankings help create a quantifiable system, they are not always the best representation of a university’s mission, academics or campus.

The Marquette Dean of Admissions Robert Blust has, however, recognized that many different factors contribute to a student’s college experience other than ranking systems. In a recent Tribune interview, Blust commented that the admissions department recommends prospective students research the methodology behind rankings because how a student defines what is best for him or herself may be different than how U.S. News defines it. In this manner, there seems to be a slight disconnect from what prospective students are told and what is marketed across campus.

Marquette should spend its effort promoting objective facts about its programs and let prospective students decide if it is the right fit for them, rather than advertising unsubstantial numbers. Deciding on a college is not just a numbers game, and reducing it to rankings tries to make it one.