The “Down & Dirty” on the U.S. College Rankings Game

Daughter and Mom moving into college dorm

We start them early and are “all in” on preparing our kiddos to rise to the top and secure a coveted spot at an elite school after high school graduation so that their “launch” will be to a prestigious job and an amazing life.  Come on, we all do it.  No shame.  I’m a parent and would lay down my life for my children and wanted to give them the sun, moon, and stars.  What did the College Admissions Scandal teach us?  Basically that parents want to do everything in their power to make sure their daughters and sons can attend their dream schools.  In my financial planning practice, I’ve seen it all over the years: parents entering their retirement with $300,000.00 second mortgages to finance Susie’s aspiration to attend Harvard, parents postponing retirement for several years to finance Joey’s spot at Princeton and Ms. “X” paying taxes and a penalty for an early withdrawal from her 401K so Megan can sit in the student section cheering at a Notre Dame football game.

And where does it all start?  Who says where our kids should go to school?  Who’s dictating which institutions of higher learning are the “best”?  It’s so easy to buy into; we’re all talking about it.  Show me a gathering of high school parents at a sporting event or parent/teacher conferences or at school pick-up: “Where do they rank?”  Forbes has a list as does Money Magazine.  But the “do all, end all” is the annual U.S. News & World Report which publishes their renowned list of the Best Colleges every fall for the following year.  It’s gained such an air of authority over the years that we don’t ever question them or bother “looking under the hood” at the methodology.  The reality deserves a deeper dive.

According to Wikipedia, the three most valuable factors in the U.S. News rankings are “Undergraduate Academic Reputation” at 22.50%, “Faculty Resources” at 20.00% (this includes class size and rate of instructor pay), and “Graduation Rate” at 20.00%.  All that seems fair, but let’s look a little closer.  Lynn O’Shaughnessy in her 2020 article, “Does Where You Go to College Matter?”, reports that the academic “reputation” score is derived from polling three administrators from the offices of president, provost, and admissions about their peers and having them assign “grades” to other schools for the bulk of the category value and then poll high school guidance counselors for their consensus to account for about 5.00% of that 22.50% total value.  Wait…what?!?!  How in the world does a provost at a small, liberal arts school in Maine know anything about a small, liberal arts school in Iowa?  And how many high school guidance counselors really have an accurate read on the country’s nearly 3,400 colleges and universities?  How is “reputation” really defined and is there really an objective way to measure it?  The answer has to be a resounding “no” as we all have biases.  Michael Bastedo, an educational sociologist at the University of Michigan who has studied the ranking lists, is quoted in a New Yorker article in 2011 as saying, “Rankings drive reputation.”  In my book, that’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy.  On the website, it was reported that Clemson University intentionally imposed limits on class size and increased instructor pay in a bid to increase their “Faculty Resources” rating.  And lastly, let’s talk about that “Graduation Rate”.  No way around that, you say?  In fact, the graduation rate in question is the 6-year college graduation rate for incoming freshmen.  If you’re anything like me, I was counting on my daughter and son to finish in 4 years and a 6-year rate would be meaningless to me.

Before I close, I want to share an antidote that reflects back on that all-important “reputation” component of school rankings from Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker called “The Order of Things”.  Some years ago, Thomas Brennan, Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, sent out a list of 10 top law schools to about 100 fellow attorneys and asked them to rank the schools in order of their quality.  The given list included the University of Michigan, some Ivies, and some lesser-known schools.  Then the questionnaires came back and were tallied.  Brennan wrote, “As I recall, they ranked Penn State’s law school right about in the middle of the pack.  Maybe fifth among the schools listed.  Of course, Penn State doesn’t have a law school.”  The morale of the story: even though Penn State now has a law school, perception and “reputation” and rankings are a tricky thing.

Are you and your family looking for some common-sense, knowledgeable resources to help you navigate the “noise” and determine the best college path for your daughter or son?  I hold the Certified College Planning Specialist credential, the only one in a several hundred-mile radius, and I would be honored and humbled to work with your family.  Please call me at 563-949-4705 or email me at

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