When researchers debunk the rankings

Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, just released their white paper, A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity.” The three most substantial findings likely won’t surprise believers who read this blog:

  • Rankings are problematic because of flawed metrics and rampant misuse.
  • A college’s prestige does not predict student learning, job satisfaction, or happiness.
  • A student’s engagement in college is more predicative of the outcomes than the college itself.

Ideas like those presented in this paper spread best when shared with those most likely to embrace them. So while I didn’t conduct or publish this research, here’s who I believe the paper isn’t for:

1. People who just don’t care about college rankings.
If you’re in that group, you’ve already embraced what this paper is arguing. And it should come as no surprise that you have my full-throated support. Forge ahead, find the right colleges (famous or not) for your student, and know that the vast majority of counseling and admissions professionals endorse your approach.

2. People who believe that prestigious schools are the best schools.
For this group, college rankings—the most prominent of which always place prestigious schools at the top of the list—support your world view. The debate around college rankings isn’t an intellectual exercise you want or need to engage in. Unless you’re open to the idea that a less-famous school could very well provide the same or even better education and outcomes, a research study (even one published by a researcher at a top-ranked university, by the way) isn’t likely to change your mind.

Now, here’s who I believe this paper is for:

1. Families who want to make informed evaluations of potential colleges, but aren’t sure how to do it or what to focus on.
If you’re in this group, you don’t have strong preconceived college notions. You want to make good decisions, but given how many colleges and resulting data points there are to consider, you don’t know what to pay attention to and, more importantly, what to ignore. This paper will help you confidently ignore what’s become a driving and damaging force in college admissions. You’ll know you’re making a good decision doing so. And you’ll reinvest that energy into other areas that will help you better evaluate potential colleges.

2. Data-hungry college researchers.
I have an endearing term for you—“spreadsheet” families. You know who you are. You’re the family member for whom data drives decisions, so everything college-related goes on the spreadsheet. Good for you. You’re engaged in a college search and you want to use reliable metrics rather than marketing to drive those decisions. Members of this group sometimes fall prey to rankings when they mistake them as reliable data points. But the truly data hungry are willing to dig into what reveals itself to be a deeply flawed rankings methodology. This paper will arm you with published research so you can seek reliable data meant to do more than sell magazines.

So if you’re open to looking beyond rankings and prestige, the research, the data, and the encouragement can all be found in here.