College Rankings: It's the Silly Season

Last Updated May 3, 2010 2:29 PM EDT

College presidents love to diss college rankings. College rankings, many of them insist, are meaningless.Stack of mail
But at this time of year, many schools are quietly trying to influence their own college ranking through promotional mailings to their peer institutions.

Colleges are sending out glossy materials, including presidential reports, campus magazines and even desk calendars, with the unspoken aim of boosting their "reputational" score in U.S. News & World Report's college rankings. A reporter at The Washington Post wrote about this underground lobbying phenomenon to influence US college rankings.

As I've written before, a lot is at stake during the ranking process since 25% of a college's ranking in U.S. News is based what other college administrators think about it. During this time of year, the magazine sends out surveys to three top administrators at every institution and these busy folks are expected to rank every school in their own category on a one-to-five scale.

Here's an example of how crazy the system is: administrators in the "national university" category are expected to rank all their peer institutions. The 260 schools in this far-flung category include Harvard, Brigham Young, Louisiana State, Wake Forest, Northwestern, University of Chicago, UCLA and the Colorado School of the Mines.

Of course, it's laughable that any of these schools know much if anything about each other. And that helps explains the underground mailing campaigns.

The antics during this higher-ed beauty pageant season would amusing if so many families didn't pick schools based on college rankings. And that isn't funny at all.

Further Reading

Why My Son Chose Beloit
What's Wrong with Princeton Review's Best Value College List
Why You Should Distrust College Rankings
Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes for TheCollegeSolutionBlog. Follow her on Twitter.
College rankings image by uzvard. CC 2.0.