Investigative News: How reliable are college rankings?

Kathryn Nicolai, Investigative News Editor

This past August, The Princeton Review published “The Best 382 Colleges, 2018 Edition,” and ranked the University the #3 Party School, #1 Lots of Greek Life, and #2 Most Beautiful Campus in the nation. This is the 26th edition of the guide that offers categorized lists and rankings of colleges within the realms of academics, administration, demographics, extracurricular, social scene and more. An overview of each college is also included based on student survey responses.

For the 2018 edition, The Princeton Review surveyed 137,000 students at 382 colleges in order to compile lists and ranks. The survey has over 80 questions that ask the students about themselves, the administration and academics of their college, as well as other students and life at their college. The survey often uses a five-point scale for students to rate aspects of themselves and their school.

The student survey has been “a continuous process,” according to the Princeton Review, and surveys are submitted online by students from each college included in the book.

The industry of educational rankings of public school districts, independent schools, undergraduate, graduate, and professional institutions has significantly expanded since 1983 when U.S. News and World Report published its first issue of America’s Best Colleges magazine, according to Bill Conley, Vice President of Enrollment Management.

University Chief Communications Officer Andy Hirsch finds the rankings “somewhat arbitrary,” and questions the methodology of The Princeton Review.

“The Princeton Review will not disclose specific details about its Bucknell data, such as how many of our students participated in the survey and what class years those students represent,” Hirsch said.

President of Activities and Campus Events (ACE) Kimberly Shust ’18 was not surprised with the University’s high rankings. However, Shust was surprised that the University’s social rankings far exceeded its educational rankings.

Students’ lack of attention to the University’s ranking of #2 Most Active Student Government was also noted by Shust.

“These rankings represent labels, and while they may not be inaccurate, they limit people’s interpretation of what Bucknell means to them,” said Shust. “Bucknell is such a diverse school, full of engaging learning opportunities, extracurricular programs, athletics, organization involvement, friendly faces, and so much more.”

Shust concluded that the rankings do encapsulate large aspects of student life but neglect numerous other student organizations and activities.

The University’s Panhellenic Council and Interfraternity Council declined to comment.

Hirsch said, “I do think it’s important to note that the University recognizes that high-risk alcohol consumption is a n issue at Bucknell.” The safety of students is one of the University’s top concerns, according to Hirsch, rather than the rankings received from The Princeton Review.

The University is “intentional in the modest attention it gives to such rankings in its marketing and communications materials to its various audiences,” Conley said. Prospective students and families will likely consider college rankings during the college search process.

“A range of research studies indicate that rankings are just one of many inputs used in deciding where to apply and, ultimately, where to enroll, and unlikely play a primary role in those decisions,” Conley said.

This past month, The Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization published, “Perceptions of Institutional Quality: Evidence of Limited Attention to Higher Education Rankings,” authored by economists Andrew G. Meyer and Andrew R. Hanson of Marquette University, and Daniel C. Hickman of the University of Idaho. The article states that limited attention is given to U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s Best Colleges. Although it was shown that applications drop between 2-6% when colleges move from within the list of the top 50 colleges to outside the list of the top 50 colleges.

“Though there are dozens of rankings and ratings that exist, research shows only a few (such as U.S. News & World Report, Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education, Forbes, Money, etc.) carry any meaningful influence with prospective students and their families,” Hirsch said.

“Even then, rankings are not a primary factor when those individuals make decisions about where to attend college,” he added.

“Our campus has been recognized as one of the most beautiful in the country on a few occasions,” Associate Vice President of Facilities and Sustainability Ken Ogawa said in regard to being ranked #2 Most Beautiful Campus. “And while it’s nice to see our team’s efforts acknowledged by external groups, we don’t spend much time thinking about the Princeton Review rankings.”

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