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The Merits and Shortcomings of Higher Education Rankings

Alex Domb, Contributing Writer

Last week, annual installations of university rankings were released by U.S. News and World Report and Times Higher Education. U.S. News’ list focuses on national colleges and universities, while Times’ list ranks the top 1,000 universities world-
wide. In both of these lists, NYU’s ranking improved from last year’s installation in U.S. News’ list, NYU jumped from a tie for 36th national research university last year to a tie with University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill for 30th this year, while on Times’ list, NYU jumped from 32nd international university last year to 27th this year.

These rankings always generate a lot of attention. College applicants and their families rely on these lists to guide their university searches, while the universities themselves proudly and publicly advertise their status in these rankings each year. NYU is no exception. On Sept. 13, NYU’s Twitter account released a video announcing NYU’s improved standings in these rankings, along with the caption, “It’s a banner year for #NYU! We’re rising in higher education rankings and becoming more selective.”

So how, exactly, do these rankings determine which school is better than others? Factors considered within the Times’ and U.S. News’ rankings differ significantly, but both groups include reputation-driven surveys and a university’s financial resources in their calculations. Times heavily considers amount of research citations in its rankings, while U.S. News includes graduation rates, retention rates and student selectivity in its rankings. There are certainly useful insights in these numbers. A university’s financial resources are a valuable indicator of the facilities and opportunities it can provide to students.

Noting exactly what factors go into these calculations is important when critically evaluating these rankings. But what is more important is what the rankings fail to consider. The most glaring problem is relativism: every university applicant has different needs, different goals and different desires for what he or she wants out of a college education. Moreover, universities themselves have differing missions for what they want to provide to their students and what they want their students to take with them into the professional world. Due to this overall variability, rankings can never serve as a full indicator of a school’s quality or of an individual’s experience at that school. The ranking systems are additionally flawed in that the degree to which they weigh each factor is completely arbitrary.

For example, there is no rational consensus on why U.S. News decides to weigh selectivity at 12.5 percent, as opposed to 14 percent, 20 percent or 10 percent. Clearly, the numerical degree to which each list decides to weigh each factor favors some schools over others. To reflect this, universities need to stop advertising their statuses in these rankings, as doing so simply propagates the undeserved sense of perceived importance that these lists enjoy. NYU, it is on you — stop legitimizing higher education rankings, and lead the way for peer schools by ignoring systems that are and always will be massively flawed.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 18 print edition. Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. Email Alex Domb [email protected]

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The Merits and Shortcomings of Higher Education Rankings