Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why You Should Save Your Juniors from School Rankings

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Despite what Andy Williams says, this really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for high school counselors.  Some of your seniors are waiting to hear from the colleges they applied to through an early response program, while other seniors are walking into your office saying “So, I was thinking about applying to college” —and just when you think all of this is managed, the postman delivers PSAT results for your juniors.

In a year when early became earlier, it’s no surprise the juniors are starting to park themselves at our doorsteps for college advice. Since these test results are usually the starter’s pistol for the beginning of the college application process, you can’t blame them for wanting quality information that will help them on their college hunt…

…and you really want to steer them clear of using questionable information that won’t help them at all.  I’ve written more than one column on the dangers of using college rankings to help build a college list, but a new take on the foibles of rankings comes from Peter Ubel.  Ubel’s focus is on high school rankings, but see if any of this rings a bell:

…thirty-seven of Newsweek’s top 50 high schools have selective admission standards, thereby enrolling the cream of the eighth grade crop. That means that when these high scoring eighth graders reach eleventh grade, they’ll be high scoring eleventh graders, helping the school move up the Newsweek rankings. 
…That’s no way to determine how good a school is. The measure of a good education should be to assess how well students did in that school compared to how they would have been predicted to do if they had gone to other schools.

A medical writer by trade, Ubel goes on to make an analogy to hospitals and liver transplants I just can’t do justice to, so please read it yourself.  If you need encouragement to follow the link, Ubel suggests hospitals should start treating healthy patients, just in case Newsweek decides to apply the “best high school” model to hospitals (

The same can be said of rankings of colleges.  Sure, some base their rankings on impressive algorithms that take myriad factors into account, but the density of the calculation doesn’t make it more impressive if the factors have nothing to do with what students learn once they are on campus.  If colleges are considered great because they take great kids who leave as great young adults, what does that say about the learning experience—they did no harm?

Even if the ingredients of the college rankings recipe had something to do with the learning experience, why is one college the best college for all students?  Is a harp player really better off going to Harvard than Julliard?  Is a criminal justice major really better off at The University of Michigan (which has no CJ program) than Michigan State (which does)?

It would be great if personalized college (or high school) advice were as easy to distribute as copies of a magazine, but just like all those sitcoms that wrap up family drama in 25 minutes, there’s more to the real world than that.  Armed with the right resources and the right outlook, juniors can navigate the real college search process with the keen eye and open mind that will serve them will in college and in life, where they will thrive as both healthy students and healthy livers.

So drop those rankings, stat.

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