College Rankings: Should We Care?

Last Updated Aug 4, 2010 12:52 AM EDT

When my son's oldest friend (they met when they were still in diapers) came over for dinner last night, I shared this news with her:

According to the Princeton Review's new annual college rankings, Mount Holyoke College ranked No. 1 in the category of best classroom experience.

Paloma, who will be a freshman at the women's college in the fall, was impressed, but she wanted more. Is Mount Holyoke, she asked, also No. 1 on the prettiest campus list? Actually, the college was No. 7 on that list. The most beautiful college, according to Princeton Review, is Sewanee: The University of the South.

Before you head online to see what other schools made the best-and-worst college lists -- including the always popular No. 1 party school honors -- ask yourself this question: Do these rankings mean anything?

Let me try to answer that question by first arguing that Princeton Review's methodology is as flaky as pie crust. First, only the schools that make it into Princeton Review's annual college guide, with the latest being The Princeton Review: The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition, are considered. That leaves out more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities.

Students at schools, which are included in the book, rate their own colleges. I think it makes sense to solicit the opinions of college student opinions - US News & World Report doesn't consult them - but how Princeton Review gathers these opinions is unscientific.

Princeton Review depends on college students to fill out its online survey that asks 80 questions on such things as academics, campus life and the student body. If you're a college student, here's where you can fill out the college ranking survey.

Also, while the rankings coincide with the release of the 2011 edition of the best college book, some of the student opinions were recorded back in 2007.

The Princeton Review rankings in dozens of categories are amusing, but are they worth reading? Here, I think, is the value: The lists remind students that there are many schools scattered around the country that are worth considering, as well as avoiding. With about a third of students attending schools within 50 miles of their house, I think casting a wider net is often a good thing academically and financially.

No. 1 Party School

If you've read this far to find out the No. 1 party school in America, here is the winner: Penn State was relieved this year to bequeath the top party school honors to the University of Georgia, which is conveniently surrounded by nearly 100 bars.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.com.
Mount Holyoke image by carolyndietel. CC 2.0.

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