It’s ranking season, and with it comes the annual discussion about what these rankings actually mean and how important they are in the scheme of things. While controversies abound as to whether or not institutions try to orchestrate their rankings, there really is no controversy about how important the rankings are to the incoming freshman class, presumably a main audience for which the rankings are intended. Simply put, the rankings just don’t rank.
Each year on the CIRP Freshman Survey we ask hundreds of thousands of incoming students to tell us the relative importance of various factors when deciding which college to choose. Each year since we added this option to the list (in 1995) the results tell us that “rankings in national magazines” is of relatively little importance compared to other higher “ranked” concerns. In 2008, only 17.6 percent of incoming first-year students reported that these rankings were “very important” in deciding which college to attend. In comparison, 64.7 percent reported that “academic reputation” was very important. Lest one interject that surely academic reputation is based on the rankings, I would counter that students have been telling us this for years before the rankings were a twinkle in the eye of the editors at US News.
In addition to academic reputation, many students choices are impacted by if the school’s graduates get good jobs (54.2 percent), if they were offered financial assistance (43.0 percent), and a visit to campus (41.4 percent). Of the 21 items we currently ask about on the CIRP Freshman Survey, 10 come out as being more important to more students than rankings. (see our monograph “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2008” for more information. While the importance of rankings has risen since 1995, when only 10.5 percent reported they were “very important,” in recent years the percentage seems to have leveled off in the 16-17 percent range.
It’s evident then that rankings are way down the list in what an incoming student considers when choosing what college or university to call home. Which then begs the question…why the fuss?