College Rankings: 5 Things That Matter More When it’s Time to Apply

It’s college rankings season, and no one has more of a love-hate relationship with these annual lists than academia — except maybe parents.

College rankings matter less than these 5 other factors

Don’t get me wrong; data is great. As a parent on the college search myself, it is gratifying to have hard facts and boxes to check. But some commercial lists employ questionable methodology, and the plain truth is that whether a student will thrive at a particular school cannot be determined by an institution’s national ranking. Rather, some of the most valuable attributes of colleges and universities are the hardest to measure and are virtually “unrankable.”

And so, with irony noted, and no small amount of unscientific methodology applied, here is my own ranking of five critical unrankables:

What’s More Important Than College Rankings

1. Commitment to teaching

It may seem obvious, but great professors are the central component of a great education. And while there is data on the number of books and papers faculty publish, it is harder to measure professors’ true commitment to the art of teaching. Passionate educators and strong student-faculty relationships forge deep knowledge and connections that set students up for long-term success.

2. An intentional living environment

The influence of residential life is often underestimated. By having to live and work with people from different backgrounds in a community of “unlike,” — whether geographical, political, cultural, or socioeconomic — a great residential college gives the next generation the tools they will need to get things done in an increasingly complex world.

Residential halls should be an environment where leadership, responsibility and civic engagement are expected behaviors, so that students learn to treat others with respect, adapt to change, and forge solutions to build community.

3. The relationship quotient

Being book smart is necessary, but not sufficient for life. During their college years, students have to learn to form different kinds of connections with peers and faculty. These lasting relationships stay with them — and the soft skills absorbed along the way are a predictor of their success.

4. Active learning

Learning happens by doing, whether in a classroom, lab or studio, or off campus with an internship or studying abroad. So abundant opportunities to participate during the college years offer distinct advantages over the “spectator” model of hiding in the back of a large lecture hall or being relegated to watching as others participate in the arts or athletics.

5. The freedom to fail

College should be a place that encourages students to try new things, including subjects and activities that they are not likely to excel in the first time they try (or ever). Great colleges create a climate in which students feel empowered to take full advantage of all opportunities before them. Failure is critical to self-discovery.

Students are individuals, and universities are very different from one another. The “best” school on a list just might be the wrong choice for an individual student. The trick is using the data to make an educated guess about fit. How? I’d suggest doing it the old-fashioned way — talk to people, ask questions, visit campuses, draw your own conclusions.

Over time, I have learned the best predictor is often a student’s instincts about which school feels right. I look forward to hearing your suggestions on other factors that might just outweigh the college rankings.

Photo credit: Chamberednautilus


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About Adam Weinberg

Adam Weinberg became the 20th president of Denison University in 2013. Dr. Weinberg has focused on positioning Denison in ways that address the major issues facing higher education in the 21st century, including affordability, career readiness, internationalization, civic education, learning outcomes, and social inclusion.

Under Dr. Weinberg’s leadership, Denison has expanded the curriculum with a new generation academic programs, global programs, and a deepening of the arts, including the construction of the Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts. Denison’s new programs in Global Commerce, Data Analytics, Financial Economics, Narrative Journalism, and Health, Exercise and Sports Studies are forging new pathways for the liberal arts.

A second major area of emphasis has been career exploration. Denison has launched the Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, which is reinventing how liberal arts colleges prepare students for careers and professions. For this work, Dr. Weinberg was recognized by the National Association of Colleges and Employers for innovation with the inaugural 2017 Career Services Champion Award. Dr. Weinberg is heavily involved in national conversations about career preparation through his work with The Council on Competitiveness and The Columbus Partnership.

Previously, he was vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University, where he was a member of the sociology department for more than a decade. A native of Texas, Dr. Weinberg’s passion for ice hockey took him to New England, where he attended Deerfield Academy and Bowdoin College, graduating magna cum laude. He studied at Cambridge University before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Northwestern University. Dr. Weinberg lives on campus with his wife Anne. He has three children and two dogs. (Source: Denison University website.)

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