College Rankings: Single best advice

CLICK - DrKPI for improving college marketingIt is again the time of year when parents and prospective students pore over recently published university rankings.

“…US News asked top college officials to identify institutions in their Best Colleges ranking category that are making the most innovative improvements in terms of curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities.”

But should we recommend such rankings, like the one above from the US News & World Report?  Are college rankings good, bad or ugly as Yale’s former Dean of Admissions suggests?

Or could it be the single worst advice we could possibly give a high school student?

Fact 1: College rankings generate revenue for publishers

Media houses know very well that university rankings are of great interest to prospective students and parents. So, newspapers like the Financial Times (FT) feature a weekly special section on education. In addition, the paper publishes numerous rankings throughout the year.

Then there are the various feature reports (see 2015-11-03 FT Special Report on Innovations in Education). Of course, they carry also advertising like the one below from Thunderbird.

Looking at the FT Special Reports Ad rates shows that getting involved with educational institutions pays well for media houses. Universities are forced to get increasingly famous to attract more resources and qualified students. In turn, advertising in special editions about education is a sure way to reach more of your target audience.

Marketing 101

Publishing college rankings makes sense from a publisher’s perspective. Advertising brings in the revenue needed (FT Special Reports Ad rates), and people read the stuff because as Langville and Meyer (2012, p. 1) suggest:

In America, especially, we are evaluation-obsessed, which thereby makes us ranking-obsessed given the close relationship between ranking and evaluation.

Fact 2: Schools love to use rankings

Everyone certainly loves rankings when they place in the top 10. And regardless of whether we agree with the findings, if we are the top dog, we let the whole world know about it.

The great thing is such rankings are based on a third party’s opinion, which lends it all credibility when we advertise our achievement.  Arizona State University (ASU) continues to tout their top rankings in the US News & World Report list of most innovative schools.

Marketing 101

You don’t have to be brilliant or innovative, you just have to convince others that you are. Of course, if you have an external reference point that ranks you highly, such as a well-known publication, so much the better for your recruiters.

Can prospective students trust these school rankings?
Are they useful when choosing a university/college or program of study?

Fact 3: This stuff is less useful than you think

It is best to look at the methodology used in a ranking. What measures were used to conclude that ASU should be considered more innovative than Stanford and MIT? Fair question – let’s see.

US News & World Report asked deans and presidents to rank their peers. The magazine wants to compare apples with apples. Hence, national schools such as ASU, Stanford and MIT are ranked with their peers.

By the way, did you know that the US News & World Report puts the United States Naval Academy into the category of national liberal arts colleges?

So how does one measure the innovativeness of a university? We are told:

“…2015 survey that received the most nominations by top college officials for being the most innovative institutions. They are ranked in descending order based on the number of nominations they received. A school had to receive seven or more nominations to be listed.”

In plain English, this means you need to get as many high level university administrators as possible to nominate your university for innovation.

Accordingly, if you manage to make everyone perceive you as innovative, you are. That is all there is to it. Isn’t that wonderful?

Of course, we have no idea if whether a product innovation or a process innovation helped you rank highly. In either case, to claim to have made an invention, and thereby become an innovative university, you should answer things like: Why is this curriculum change an invention? They can be evaluated according to:

  • novelty (new),
  • inventiveness (i.e. must involve a non-obvious inventive step), and
  • industrial applicability (can be used).

Of course, in this case we have no clue what makes a curriculum change a simple change and what makes it an invention.

Marketing 101

US News & World Report rankings illustrate very well that how you measure things matters little. It just has to come across as making sense because 90 percent of readers do not bother to read about your methods or the fine print.

However, if you invest several years of your life in attending a school, while paying through the nose for tuition, fees and so on, you are well-advised to ensure the ranking makes sense to you.

Of course, even if the measure is bad, this does not necessarily mean ASU and Stanford are bad schools. They’re great, but

the US News & World Report’s attempts to measure innovativeness is a useless vanity exercise, to put it politely.

Fact 4: Using just one ranking is the worst

You basically have to do the homework. The five points spelled out in the table below will help you make better sense out of any ranking.

Please keep in mind – the perfect ranking does not exist. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, but you can only learn what those are by following these steps.

5 critical things to do before trusting a college ranking.

1. Take the time and make the effort to learn about the methodology. Where is the description, and how thorough is the ranking we are looking at? An example of a good method section is PEW Research‘s study on multiracial Americans, which explains how data were collected, weaknesses of the study, etc. This is also easy for the uninitiated to understand.

If you have done this homework, you know better how much weight you should give the rankings in front of you. That is a great start.

2. Does the study measure what it is supposed to (also called validity)? What criteria were used to make up a component in the ranking? Do these make sense to you?

3. Are there components of the ranking that particularly interest you? We may look at costs as an important factor. It could be interesting to understand how, for instance, a university degree (e.g., undergraduate or graduate) affects one’s career prospects and / or income 10 years after we graduate.

3 very good examples of included interesting factors:

4. Come up with a set of criteria that are important to you (see also image below), such as:

4.1 – location (e.g., which country and what area of the country/city), and
4.2 – costs (e.g., tuition, fees, health insurance, accommodation).

5. Write down a set of criteria that are not that critical to you, such as:

5.1 – GPA of incoming class,
5.2 – number and value of student scholarships, and
5.3 – diversity of faculty (e.g., gender, race, country and language)

The above makes it clear that using just one ranking is plain stupid. Using two is risky and using three or more allows you to pick and choose, thereby empowering you to make the decision that best suits you.

If the ranking uses those criteria that are of limited importantce to you (see point 5), you know what to do – ignore it.

One must balance the resources put in and the outcomes we hope for. This also indicates that we need to look at several rankings to choose the right university.

Who is number 1?  Create the best ranking

Of course, in addition to US News & World Report and the Financial Times, others do not want to be left out of this lucrative business. For instance, The Economist (a weekly magazine) also produces a ranking of MBA programs. So does the Wall Street Journal. Of course, even more rankings exist, such as the best 100 Employers to Work For or the Best Consulting Companies (German-language Handelsblatt).

In the case of the Best Consulting Companies, participants are asked three questions about the firm and voilà, we have the 2015 rankings. This may indicate more about how much you advertise (helps increase brand recognition) than how satisfied your clients are with your work.

These examples illustrate, everybody and anybody can create a college ranking. However, to avoid becoming a laughingstock, I urge you to follow the nine steps outlined below.

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How exact and thorough we are when addressing each step will, in turn, affect the overall quality of our rankings.

9 steps to develop your favorite ranking system for just about anything.

1. Write a one-page summary of why this ranking is needed and explain its purpose (to help readers… lose weight, pass the certification exam, purchase the best car, etc.).

2. What can readers do with these data? For example, does studying these data help improve performance? Does it show one’s weaknesses? Does it outline how one can improve (see DrKPI BlogRank)?

3. Come up with some indicators or measures that allow the collection of data from individuals (e.g., salary three years after graduation), the institution (e.g., faculty with doctorate), and possibly other indicators (e.g., inflation rate, purchasing power parity (PPP) data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to adjust salaries).

4. Use the indicators to make up components that make sense to the uninitiated (e.g., career progress, quality of faculty).

5. Add up the indicators to attain the overall score for each component the school, firm or student achieved.

FT uses three indicators to make up the “idea generation” component of its MBA rankings.

  • percentage of faculty with doctorates,
  • number of doctoral students that graduated last three years, and
  • research output created using a set of 45 journals (no Chinese or Spanish research journals need apply).

6. Convert the component scale to a common one such as 0 to 100, whereby the best gets the top score and average performers hover around 50.

7. Determine the importance of each component.

In many cases, some components are weighted higher than others. That is a value judgment that warrants an explanation. The same goes if you weigh each component the same! Explain your decision to the uninitiated reader.

8. Compute the aggregate score as the weighted sum of the previously calculated scaled component scores.

9. Present the aggregate score from the desired scale, such as 0 to 100.

Thanks to Fung (2013, p. 22-23) for inspiring me to write up this list.

Whenever looking at a university or any other ranking, keep the above in mind. Is the methodology spelled out, explaining the issues raised above? If these things are not made transparent, caution is called for.

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What is your take?

What’s your favorite ranking (e.g., sports) AND why do you like it?

– Which university ranking did you use when you applied for college?

What do you like the most about rankings?

What advice would you give a high school student regarding college rankings?

FT Global MBA Ranking

As I pointed out above, each ranking has something we might be able to use for our own purposes. The one below shows which business school provides you with the best value (i.e. current income minus tuition, books, lost wages while attending the program, etc.).

Surprising, is it not? The best known schools rank low. But maybe you want to use different criteria to rank… Check it out yourself.

FT Global MBA Ranking – the winner based on value is the University of Cape Town – Graduate School of Business.

Things worth reading

1. Fung, Kaiser (2013). Number Sense. How to use big data to your advantage. New York: McGraw-Hill. Available on

2. Kenrick, Douglas, T. (September 30, 2014). When statistics are seriously sexy. Sex, lies and big data. Psychology Today online. Retrieved November 2, 2015 from

3. Kenrick, Douglas, T. (June 20, 2012). Sexy statistics: What’s the one best question to predict casual sex? The science of sex, beer and enduring love. Psychology Today online. Retrieved November 3, 2015 from

4. Langeville, Amy N. & Meyer, Carl D. (2012). Who’s #1? The science of rating and ranking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Available from

5. Rudder, Christian (September 2015). Dataclysm: Love, sex, race, and identity – what our online lives tell us about our offline selves. New York: Broadway Books. Available on

6. Stake, Jeffrey Evans and Alexeev, Michael (October 30, 2014). Who Responds to U.S. News & World Report’s Law School Rankings? Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington Legal Studies Research Paper No. 55. Available at SSRN:

Single worst advice – the answer

After reading this blog entry, it is obvious that using a single ranking is not smart.
Use a few and be aware of each one’s weaknesses and strengths.

Choose the component that helps you the most. If by any chance two rankings use the same component (e.g., salary), compare the numbers and smile.

Nothing is perfect. And since you read all the way to the end, why not write a comment and subscribe to our newsletter?

Urs E. Gattiker

Professor Urs E. Gattiker - DrKPI is corporate Europe's leading social media metrics expert (see his books). He continues to work with start-ups. Urs is CEO of CyTRAP Labs GmbH.

3 thoughts on “College Rankings: Single best advice

  • 8. November 2015 at 17:19


    I like this post. I found other rankings that are also interesting to look at. So I list a few here:

    These are useful as well and this one from the European Commission allows students to select the best schools according to various criteria. Of course, the disadvantage is you have to think for yourself first (i.e. what is important to you):!/readymade?trackType=illustrative&sightMode=undefined&section=illustrativeSelectRanking

    Hope this is useful.

    • 8. November 2015 at 18:34

      Dear Mr/Ms Frotz

      Thanks so much for this information and the three links you added.

      Yes these are very interesting. And once again, as you point out, you have to pick and choose the components in the ranking that suit your needs the best.

      Even countries have their rankings for colleges, such as:

      this page from the Federal Gov. Switzerland gives access to four worldwide rankings

      Another Ranking in Germany asked Human Resource Manager 1 question:

      “Welche Hochschule bildet die Studenten für Ihre Bedürfnisse am besten aus?” (Which university educates students best so they meet your needs.)

      One question, no definition of what: “…for your needs means”. Such rankings, I am sure you agree with me Mr or Ms Frotz, is bogus or useless

      Wirtschaftswoche – Hochschulranking 2015 – limited value. Here comes the method of this highly questionable ranking:

      Welche Hochschule bildet die Studenten für Ihre Bedürfnisse am besten aus? So lautet die Frage, die die Beratungsgesellschaft Universum 540 Personalern aus ganz Deutschland stellte. Aus einer Liste aller Hochschulen konnten sie diejenigen wählen, deren Absolventen ihre Erwartungen am meisten erfüllen. Pro Fach konnten sie mehrere Unis nennen. Wegen des starken Praxisbezugs fokussiert sich das Ranking auf wirtschaftsnahe Fächer wie BWL, Maschinenbau, Informatik oder Jura.”

      If you check out the above as a survey researcher or statistician, you want to ask: You cannot be serious to collect valid and reliable data with such a method, can you?. But maybe the Consulting company Universum does not know it any better and the Wirschaftswoche editors thought, it sells copy, therefore we print. But I would hope quality journalism entails more than passing on such irresponsible work that cannot be considered research. Definitely not fit to print 🙁

      But the ranking of banking colleges below for a huge country like India also lacks a clear research methodology. The ranking and what type of ratings were used is unclear to me.

      See for instance, Banking Colleges in India
      List of Banking Colleges in India

      • 17. November 2015 at 9:32

        I thought I needed to add this as well:
        “Every year, U.S. News & World Report, Money, and a few other national magazines publish college rankings. And every year, Yale is at or near the top of the lists. I am writing to say that there are many excellent reasons to apply to Yale, but Yale’s position in the rankings is not one of them.”

        Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Admissions, 2005-2013

        “Meanwhile, the formulas used to rank schools are based on factors that in themselves are often irrelevant to individual students.

        Their composite scores reflect
        – alumni giving rates,
        – student-to-teacher ratios,
        – median SAT scores,
        – persistence to graduation,
        – admissions selectivity and
        – other data

        that provide little information about specific program strengths, honors programs or the general way in which the school lifts and supports student aspirations.

        The simplicity and clarity that ranking systems seem to offer are not only misleading, but can also be harmful.

        Rankings tend to ignore the very criteria that may be most important to an applicant, such as specific academic offerings, intellectual and social climate, ease of access to faculty, international opportunities and placement rates for careers or for graduate and professional school.”

        That was a shocker. I added the bold text …


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