How Much Do College Rankings Matter to Students?

Prospective college students don’t care about college rankings nearly as much as their anxious mothers and fathers do, right? Maybe not.

According to the results of a survey released on Tuesday, 34 percent of college-bound students strongly disagreed, and 32 percent somewhat disagreed, with the statement that rankings “don’t matter to me, but they matter to my parents.” Meanwhile, just 6 percent strongly agreed, and 20 percent somewhat agreed, that rankings “don’t matter.”

The studentPoll survey, conducted by the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm, drew on responses from 846 high-school seniors. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they had considered rankings in deciding where to apply. Those with a 1300 or higher on the SAT were more likely to have done so than those with lower scores.

And nearly two-thirds agreed strongly or somewhat that rankings “are very important in trying to sort out the differences between colleges.” (Because the survey was conducted last November and December, it doesn’t reveal how the rankings might have influenced students’ enrollment decisions this year.)

A dash or two of cynicism was also evident in the findings, however. Most students (83 percent) agreed strongly or somewhat with this statement about rankings: “Students who are interested in prestige and status care about them.” More than half (53 percent) agreed strongly or somewhat that rankings “matter more to colleges than to students like me,” which suggests plenty of applicants are paying attention.

With whom do students discuss rankings? More than half did so with parents and friends. But 29 percent said they hadn’t discussed them with anyone. Perhaps they just, uh, meditated on them?

Anyway, according to a summary of the survey findings, the influence of rankings on college-going decisions has grown over the last decade. In 2002 a majority of students surveyed by the Art & Science Group said they hadn’t looked at rankings. A quarter couldn’t remember if they had.

Still, the summary says, the influence of rankings varies widely among students (wealthier ones tend to seek greater meaning in top-25 lists). In turn, their impact varies from from college to college, depending on its market, its competition, and its “appeal.”

So says Richard A. Hesel, a principal at the Art & Science Group. Although rankings may have become more influential, he writes in the summary, “we would argue against spending too much institutional time, money, and energy on hand wringing over rank per se and on attempts to improve it. … In short, for most, trying to game the ranking numbers is a fool’s errand.”

Presidents and trustees, you wrote down that “fool’s errand” part, right?

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