With the new academic year underway, the latest batch of college rankings is out for area schools — which are both highlighting the scores and downplaying the importance of them.
Though numerous rankings exist, the “U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges” summary is one of the most comprehensive, scoring hundreds of schools across different categories. Released Monday, the Best Colleges issued rankings for Liberty University, University of Lynchburg, Randolph College and Sweet Briar College. Except for Liberty, each school noted U.S. News & World Report rankings on their websites — despite skepticism of those scores.
Randolph College President Bradley Bateman has strong feelings about rankings — and none of those feelings are positive. In an interview, he called rankings “bogus” and “ridiculous.” In the past, he has written opinion pieces denouncing college ranking systems. Bateman is sharply critical of everything from the methodology to the philosophy of rankings.
“I would argue that you can’t learn from that where your child will get the best education. Every individual has different educational needs; these rankings don’t address those differences in learning styles, they don’t address lots of things. I think you need to really go and visit the schools, find out what they offer and what they can do for you,” Bateman said.
In an email to The News & Advance, Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News, said the value of its college rankings system is that it allows students to make informed decisions.
“College is an important and costly investment. Our mission at U.S. News is to arm students and their families with good data, enabling them to sift through complicated information on more than 1,800 schools. Through the Best Colleges rankings and articles about applying to, paying for and attending college, we provide a guide by which consumers can compare schools based on academic quality and choose the best fit for them,” Morse wrote.
Scoring in the most categories of all local colleges, Sweet Briar touted the rankings online.
In a news release, SBC President Meredith Woo noted that changes to tuition, curriculum and the calendar model all helped the school climb the rankings, particularly on innovation.
“Sweet Briar’s changes to its curriculum and tuition model were strategic: They were based on the College’s existing areas of excellence to set the institution apart, and also to be relevant for 21st-century women’s leadership,” Woo said. “Our institutional innovations are intended to prepare women leaders to innovate their own solutions to global problems.”
Despite the high mark in innovation, a Sweet Briar administrator — like other local university officials — cautioned against putting too much stock into college rankings systems.
“One of the misfortunes of rankings is that high school students typically don't take the time to understand the methodologies behind the rankings, and they vary widely based on the publisher,” Melissa Richards, SBC vice president for communications and enrollment management, wrote in an email to The News & Advance. “Some students begin their college search with rankings lists while others may use them when comparing similar financial aid packages. More importantly though, prospective students should ask questions about the college experience, learning environments, student life, career services and alumni ‘pull through’ for career success to make their decision about where to apply and attend college.”
Much of that information Richards suggested students look into is not available through the Best Colleges rankings, which uses 16 measures of academic quality to grade colleges. Those measures are grouped under the following weighted categories: student outcomes, faculty resources, expert opinions, financial resources, student excellence, and alumni giving. Though U.S. News has scaled expert opinion down as a quality measure this year, it’s that category that most disturbs Bateman, who, as a college president, is asked to assess other schools.
“I won’t even fill the [peer assessment] form out and return it to them. I think it’s unethical,” Bateman said.
Bateman accused other colleges across the country — which he didn’t name — of participating in trade voting, giving out high scores in exchange for the same. It’s the same reason Bateman says he receives “pounds” of unsolicited literature on other schools looking to impress him and earn high marks from him on the U.S. News peer assessment form.
“Academic reputation matters because it factors things that cannot easily be captured elsewhere,” U.S. News explains on its website in a post about how its methodology works.
“The big takeaway, I think, is that rankings are only one part of the story,” said Deborah Driscoll, University of Lynchburg’s vice president for institutional effectiveness and planning.
She added that parents and prospective students should look beyond the rankings and consider whether a school is the right fit and offers the programs they are interested in.
Morse said that’s what the rankings are designed to do: introduce students to schools.
“The Best Colleges rankings are a start, not an answer. We’ve always recommended that students and their parents use the rankings as a jumping-off point to create an initial list of schools, narrow down the list, and compare overall academic quality,” Morse wrote via email.
He added: “Our goal is to expose students and parents to the range of college options available. We have succeeded — nearly 90 percent of the people visiting our site are researching schools outside the top 20 national universities and top 20 national liberal arts colleges.”
But to Bateman that isn’t enough to justify lumping colleges together in a ranking system.
“I think they should come and look at the student experience, they should find out what the quality of classroom instruction is, they should find out what the quality of our advising system is, they should find out what kind of extracurricular activities we have, and they should find out the texture of student life here,” Bateman said.
Liberty officials declined to comment on ranking results.