While how a university ranks academically compared to another, can certainly be a place to start the college research process, are they going to help your teen find a university that is a good ‘fit’ – academically, socially, and in other ways?
UWC South East Asia’s (UWCSEA) University Advising Team’s recommendation is that rankings can be a useful piece of information, if applied in context, and urges families not to overly rely on them because they can be a highly subjective and potentially misleading source of information. Read on for their step-by-step guide to deciphering the rankings system and finding the best uni for your high schooler:
Step 1: Consider the source
The best approach is to look at several sources for rankings and regard each with a critical eye. In many instances, the rankings statistics are not focused on the undergraduate experience and are based on factors that would mean very little to the experience of students embarking on their first university degree.
Many organizations that offer university rankings are for-profit entities that are more concerned with selling magazines than with journalistic integrity. In the United States, US News & World Report (USNWR) competes with Forbes and the recently introduced Wall Street Journal/TES ranking to dominate the US “market” for rankings.
QS World Rankings and THE compete to provide world rankings, but they diverge significantly due to differences in the indicators used and the weightings applied when calculating overall scores.
Step 2: Look at the criteria the each ranking utilises and pay attention to the criteria omitted
When looking at the rankings, students and parents must do their research and find out what the criteria are used when calculating the ranking. For example, USNWR uses the following as highly weighted criteria in calculating the overall ranking for a university:
- how many students are denied admission
- what is the ‘reputation’ of a university (as determined by presidents, provosts and deans)
- faculty resources
- alumni donations
Not all of these criteria are relevant to the experience of an undergraduate or give an indication of the quality of the education on offer.
While it may be important to a student or parent that faculty have the resources they need to educate their students, are alumni giving and the ‘deny rate’ of a university important to a student’s experience and ‘fit’ at a university? UWCSEA’s opinion is no, and we encourage students to look at criteria that are important for them.
Head to the What’s Next blog for more in-depth information on rankings criteria in the US, UK, Asia and Australia.
Step 3: Compare Apples to Apples
When using rankings, make sure you are comparing universities in a similar category. For example, a small, liberal arts college can’t be compared with a large research university.
QS World Rankings place 20% of their ranking on research citations per faculty member, which virtually eliminates liberal arts colleges in the US and small universities in Europe because those institutions do not share the same budgets as large private research universities and many public universities and therefore aren’t able to publish as many research findings.
Step 4: Make the rankings work for you
Look at rankings online, rather than just in print. Rankings published in magazines can’t be filtered to focus on criteria important to you.
Step 5: Don’t assume that because a university isn’t highly ranked, it isn’t good
The worldwide rankings only account for roughly 5 percent of universities, meaning there are hundreds of thousands of universities that are unranked. This does not mean they aren’t excellent educational institutions.
Step 6: “Big name” universities don’t guarantee big results
Understand that attending a university with a “big” name does not guarantee big results upon graduation. Again and again we hear stories from our alumni of the importance of being able to stand out in their university (the big fish in the small pond) and the importance of establishing relationships with professors, internship supervisors.
For more information on critically reviewing rankings, including a recommended reading list that includes the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, the esteemed author for the New Yorker, head to UWCSEA’s blog: What Next? which provides university advice for expat parents.