College Rankings

I am not a fan of college rankings. Their quantitative approach to educational institutions and questionable criteria invariably fail to capture the true zeitgeist–and quality–of a college. Nor can they predict if a college is the right fit for a particular student, no matter how highly it is ranked. But choosing a college can be an overwhelming experience, and it is easy to understand why college applicants and their families look to them so often for guidance.

Recently a new and insightful college ranking system was developed by a research company that wanted to learn where students who are admitted to more than one institution actually enroll. It found that colleges with a special mission far outrank the Harvards and Yales. The top ranked national liberal arts college in this survey turned out to be the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is number 25 on the U.S. News & World Report list. Mt. Holyoke, one of the country’s few remaining women’s colleges, is number 38 in U.S. News’s rankings, but number 13 in this survey.

Where does FIT fit in this picture? Well, because we do not “fit” into the categories used by U.S. News, we are not part of its survey. But in a recent article in the New York Times about this research, FIT was mentioned as one of those mission-specific institutions–like RISD or Brigham Young–with a great, if hidden, advantage. As the article pointed out, “many students have found that the best school for them is not necessarily the highest ranked, but one that is most tailored with respect to type of education or fellow students.” So if they are looking for a specific kind of education or even environment, they might choose a religious institution like Brigham Young, for instance, over Carnegie Mellon or Wesleyan.

This is no surprise to me. FIT has no shortage of applicants. Moreover, a remarkable 82 percent of the students we accept actually enroll–which tells me that those who apply to FIT really want to be here. On the other hand, I worry about the thousands of prospective students who rely on U.S. News and other such guides, and never learn about schools such as FIT that do not appear in the rankings–or even why those that do, such as Mt. Holyoke or Brigham Young, may be just the right ones for them.

The numbers that make up rankings are incapable of telling a story–of reflecting quality. They cannot convey a college’s atmosphere, the tenor of its student body, the rigor of its programs (and which among them are special or unique to that college), the quality and passions of its faculty, indeed, the quality of campus life, its physical environment, its co-curricular programs–or a host of other related matters that prospective students should consider. They cannot tell why a particular student would–or would not–fit a particular college, regardless of its ranking. That is why U.S. News & World Report, and all of the other metric-based guides, do such a serious disservice to the American public.

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