Falling in the Ranks

In deciding which graduate schools to apply to, students may want to think twice before pulling up U.S. News’ Best of 2013 rankings. Last December, Tulane University admitted to U.S. News & World Report that its Freeman School of Business submitted misreported data for the graduating class of 2010, and possibly even data from earlier years.  Startlingly, the Tulane University School of Business is only one of four universities that have admitted to submitting incorrect data to U.S. News in the last year. For both undergraduate and graduate programs, many students rely on rankings to find universities to inform their decision on where to apply. Although ranked lists provide an easy way to compare universities to each other, students need to look beyond the numbers when making their decisions.

U.S. News is a news magazine that is widely known for publishing influential annual rankings of national universities and educational institutions since 1983. Seventy-two hours after the 2007 release of its college rankings list, U.S. News received 10 million page views, according to The New York Times. These rankings by U.S. News are based on self-reported data on university graduation rates, class sizes, acceptance rates, and examination scores. Once collected, the data is plugged into an empirical formula, of which 25 percent comes from a reputation survey. If there is missing information, it is gained by opinion surveys filled by faculty and other sources like the Department of Education’s National Center of Statistics, the American Association of University Professors and the NCAA.

Intentional or not, self-reported scores leave much room for error in rankings. Tulane University found that its business school had reported incorrect GMAT scores and total numbers of applicants to U.S. News. Also, according to the Huffington Post, The George Washington University in Washington D.C. had also been submitting inaccurate data for the past decade, allowing it to improve its rank from the higher 50s up to the rank of 51 in 2011. Just last November, the university reported that it had submitted an inflated statistic of its incoming high school students’ performances to U.S. News. George Washington University will now remain unranked by U.S. News until 2014, under the condition that the university’s data accuracy must be validated. U.S. News handled these situations of misreported statistics appropriately by announcing them and, for some cases, retracting a ranking, but the ranking system is still heavily flawed.

These faults in U.S. News’ list show the necessity for students to look beyond rankings. In 2011, UCSD ranked twenty to thirty ranks higher than Ivy League schools in the Washington Monthly’s list of top universities in the nation. But on other lists, UCSD is far from the tip of the tier, tied for number 38 on the U.S. News ranking next to UC Davis. While U.S. News and The Princeton Review may measure rankings based on survey data, Forbes bases its rankings largely on post-graduate success, while the Washington Monthly measures its rankings by social mobility, research and service. Since every ranking list has its own criteria of what makes a highly ranked school, students should not place too much emphasis on them in making application decisions.

Although employers may weigh school rankings in their hiring decisions, they more importantly evaluate individual performances and experiences. Linda Myers, a recruiter from top law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, told Chicago Lawyer Magazine in 2011 that future associates’ academic performance matters the most. According to Myers, an applicant with stellar grades from a less prestigious law school may be looked upon more favorably than an applicant with mediocre grades from a tier-one law school. Employers look for performance, skills, and internship and work experience — and not just the image or reputation of a school.

With that said, students should not solely use rankings to determine which university will offer them the “best” educational experience. U.S. News’ rankings may be useful guides to find numerical information on schools, but rankings alone do not determine a school’s merit.

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