About U.S. News and Other Rankings

January 20, 2012

As most people probably know, U.S. News and Work Report publishes rankings of undergraduate and graduate educational programs in the U.S. and around the world.  In the latter category, it is joined by a variety of other listings, including the Academic Ranking of World Universities, the Ranking Web of World Universities, QS Top Universities, Academic Analytics, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Forbes, and others.  Within the U.S., likewise, U.S. News competes in various ways against Forbes, Princeton Review, and others.  Graduate students in particular can find program rankings and customized program information searches, not only at U.S. News, but also from Princeton Review, Peterson’s, the National Research Council, the Center for Measuring University Performance, and any number of subject-specific sources (e.g., Social Psychology Network, BusinessWeek).

Those many divergent rankings would not exist if there were one simple answer to the question of what school is best.  For one thing, universities are complex places.  Two students in the same program can have very, very different experiences, depending on an enormous number of variables:  their race, sex, age, geographical preference (e.g., urban, rural), socioeconomic background, faculty advisors, course selection, and so on.  No university, and certainly no single department within a university, can hire faculty experts to cover all of the myriad areas in which students have specific interests — so the quality of an educational experience at any level, and especially for a graduate student, can depend greatly on whether a program can provide actual learning opportunities (e.g., electives, independent studies, internships) with people who not only have the kind of knowledge or expertise that the student seeks, but whose personalities and values are accessible and suited to the student’s own personality and values.

A simple ranking of programs is an exceedingly rough aid to the individual who is trying to choose among programs.  Such a ranking can be useful for eliminating programs that are far above or below one’s needs and abilities.

[To be continued]

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