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Making Sense of College Rankings

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The annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings are out, as well as an assortment of other college rankings. Dartmouth Life asked Maria Laskaris '84, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, to share her thoughts on the value of rankings and how prospective college students-and their parents-evaluate a school.

Laskaris
Maria Laskaris '84, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, advises prospective students to ask questions and base decisions on which school is the best fit for them. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

I know there's a great deal of good, relevant information provided by the ever-growing array of published college rankings. And I know that most of them, like U.S. News, try to be comprehensive in gathering information, examining statistics, and surveying college administrators. Others, like the newcomer Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), have been criticized for using subjective and unrepresentative samples to generate a dramatically different ordering of the colleges and universities under consideration.

According to the U.S. News ranking, Dartmouth is ranked 11th in the country overall and 7th in the category of "Great Schools, Great Prices." According to CCAP, published in Forbes.com, Dartmouth is ranked 127th. How is a student looking for the right place to spend four formative years supposed to interpret that discrepancy? What that range illustrates is a basic truth about all rankings: that that they do not-and cannot-tell the whole story.

That said, I don't argue that we shouldn't have any rankings by organizations like U.S. News, or that we shouldn't cooperate with them in any way.

Instead, I advocate that anyone using rankings to evaluate a school incorporates them into a more comprehensive process. Prospective students, in particular, should base decisions not on the question: "who's number one?" but rather on the question: "What's the best fit for me?"

Admittedly the approach I advocate is much harder than just basing a decision on who's at the top of the list in U.S. News or other rankings. A thoughtful and deliberate approach to learning about different institutions will result in a personal ranking based on those criteria that are most important to the student. My advice? Ask lots of questions, including the following:

  • While the student-faculty ratio is noteworthy, it is also good to ask what percentage of classes is taught by professors, and how many undergraduates do research or pursue independent study with faculty outside of the classroom.
  • Of potential majors, ask if students in that department have the opportunity to complete a research or an independent project as undergraduates. Is there the freedom and flexibility for students to fit their curriculum to their interests?
  • Don't ask just about the medical school, law school, other graduate school placement rate or the career placement rates, but also who is there to help students when they have questions about choosing a career or applying to graduate school.
  • Take a tour of campus, and ask your tour guide and other students if they are happy and why. How do they engage with their peers, both in and out of campus? How do they interact with the community surrounding their campus? What do they do on weekends?
  • Ask about financial aid, not only for your own needs, but to gain insight into the socio-economic and well as racial and ethnic diversity you might encounter on campus. Dartmouth is lucky to have both a need-blind admissions policy and comprehensive financial aid program that ensures a diverse community. The students on a campus constitute one of the most important educational resources-the greater the diversity of the student body, the richer the educational experience for all.

After 20 years as an administrator at Dartmouth, which is regularly ranked among the top colleges each year-a ranking well-supported by facts-I'm convinced that the "best" college or university for any individual is the one that truly will offer that individual the greatest chance to flourish, regardless of what the rankings say.

By MARIA LASKARIS '84

 

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 10/7/08