College Rankings Revisited

Two weeks ago, FIT was named as one of the top five fashion colleges in the world by The Business of Fashion—the popular daily digital newsletter that covers the world of fashion globally. For me, it is a confounding piece of news. On the one hand, I want to cheer and fist-pump—and on the other, I want to sigh and say, “Oh no…not another one of those rankings that so mislead the public.”

Followers of my blog know how I feel about college rankings. But before I go there, let me state the facts, at least in terms of this most recent finding and several others that have recently been released.

In The Business of Fashion, FIT ranked number 5 in its “best overall” category worldwide and number 3 worldwide in its “most influential” category. The Washington Monthly placed FIT at number 8 in the “Best Bang for the Buck” category for colleges in the Northeast while AffordableSchools.net ranked us 5th in its list of the country’s most affordable bachelor’s programs in “entrepreneurship.” Earlier this year, Fashionista.com ranked FIT 6th in its 2014 list of the top 50 fashion schools in the world. In another category of rankings, Payscale.com—the salary, benefits and compensation information company—reported that FIT alumni ranked second in the nation among community colleges in terms of median mid-career salaries (at $72,100) while our bachelor degree art majors came in second as well with a median mid-career salary of $91,800.

Like many college presidents, professors and higher education professionals, I view these rankings with skepticism. If you really think about them—and their criteria and sources of information—it is hard to understand why the public thinks they are useful. As I said in a blog last fall, 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.

And that, for me, is the biggest issue. Each college and university has its own “special nature,” a nature, environment and mission far too complex to be portrayed through numerical algorithms. And each prospective student has his or her unique nature as well—a nature that is also too wonderfully complex—to be reduced to numerical algorithms. So it is difficult at best to see how a college’s numerical ranking can predict whether students A, B, or C would thrive there.

I grant you that selecting the “right” college for a student is a challenging job. Over the years, I have met countless prospective students and their parents as they tour our campus; I have talked to them about their questions and concerns—felt their confusion and excitement as well. It is hard not to be sympathetic. How much simpler it would be for them if FIT, or any college, could be captured in a survey! How much simpler if they could trust that being ranked number three or five would ensure happiness and success in their college years.

So it is hard to ignore the rankings and to pretend that they do not carry weight in my world, especially in that ephemeral realm of “reputation.” I know how important they are to so many of our constituents and smile with pleasure when I see the pride they take in FIT’s good showings. It is in that context in particular that I want to cheer and do my happy dance. I just hope that students and their families recognize that surveys are only one of many resources available to help them in their college selection—and that when they start looking, they research well and deeply to determine the many ways colleges do or do not match up with the student’s individual interests, talents, needs and ambitions.

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