Ignore college rankings

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Fellow students, we bring good news. Our honor has been restored, our dignity preserved, our horns turned right side up.

But first, we must offer our condolences to our peers to the East. We’re sorry Rice University, it’s one thing to beat you in a football game in your own city, it’s quite another to sit 48 places ahead of you in the world-wide rankings for best universities.

What’s that? You haven’t heard of the QS rankings? This year’s rankings are the seventh installment from Quacquarelli Symonds, a career advice company, and join the plethora of annual university rankings that already crowd the market.

What’s more, this year’s rankings place UT as the 67th best university in the world. Sixty seven! That’s ahead of schools such as Dartmouth, Emory and Washington University, St. Louis. The QS rankings are especially significant in that they measure how UT stacks up with foreign universities. So much for Wisconsin and UCLA; if we’re really looking to compare ourselves to our “peer institutions,” we should study the University of Sheffield in England, a.k.a. No. 66. Or maybe we could understand exactly how we were able to leapfrog the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Take that, you kiwis.

However, there is a major disparity between UT’s rank on the QS table and our placement on other traditional college rankings, such as those issued by US News and World Report, which ranked UT as No. 45 on its annual list of U.S. universities. In contrast, UT’s No. 67 ranking on QS table makes it the 26th best U.S. school according to that scale.

The primary reason for that discrepancy is the drastically different formulas employed by the respective ranking entities. While the two ranking systems share some variables, such as faculty-to-student ratio, they differ greatly in their areas of emphasis. The QS rankings put considerable weight on academic and employer reputation, going as far as surveying top international employers about the quality of graduates. In contrast, US News uses a system that leans heavily on statistics including standardized test scores, class rank and endowment. However, there is also a disparity in the weight given to statistics that many would view as either irrelevant or of minor significance, such as a university’s alumni giving rate and number of volumes in the school’s library.

Perhaps if the QS rankings and their US News counterpart were the only kids on the block then this would be a debate worth having. This year Forbes Magazine, Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, Kiplinger and a host of others released their own rankings, each using its own distinct formula.

The abundance of ranking methods illustrates a clear reality: There is no correct or ideal formula for ranking colleges. Any attempt to devise a universal system cannot help but be arbitrary. Inevitably, formulas will be weighted in such a way that certain colleges benefit to the detriment of others.

In the meantime, rankings do have a very immediate effect on colleges across the country. A 2009 study by University of Michigan researchers Michael Bastedo and Nicholas Bowman found that a university’s placement on the US News rankings had a significant impact on a school’s applicants and admissions the following year.

Our own President William Powers Jr. underscored this point in a meeting with the editorial board, saying “When you’re recruiting undergrads, graduate students or faculty, they make a difference.”

As a University we are held hostage by our nation’s obsession with an inaccurate measure of quality in higher education. The only way we can disempower college rankings is to refuse to give them credence. Dismissing such rankings, even when they flatter us, is the only way to negate their harmful influence.

That means we must also set aside the indulgent school pride that some derive from college rankings. There are many areas in which Rice surpasses UT, and vice versa. Trying to compare and weigh those respective fields is impossible. Likewise, attempting to encompass massive universities into a single number is absurd.
Besides, it’s football season, meaning there’s only one college ranking this fall that really matters.