Rankings season places Stanford all over the board

Sept. 27, 2010, 2:29 a.m.

As the summer rush of college rankings comes to a close, Stanford dropped one place from its long-held number No. 4 spot on the U.S. News and World Report ranking, but the University’s name is beginning to show up on many other alternative lists that offer some variety from the monolithic U.S. News.

U.S. News has been collecting rankings since 1983, and since 2006, Stanford has consistently ranked fourth, often tying with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. In the 2011 rankings, released in August, Stanford came in fifth.

U.S. News “tinkers with their methodology from year to year,” said University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin. “This year, they gave more weight to graduation rate.”

“There’s some thought that they have to mix it up now and then,” she added.

Lapin said Stanford fills out 30 to 50 ranking requests a year. Some are annual, and some ask for new information every few years. The University responds to rankings by looking at surveyors’ methodologies and how valuable a ranking might be to prospective students.

Although the U.S. News rankings have long dominated the field, in recent years, the ranking organization’s methodology has come under fire, with some universities eschewing the process completely.

“The proliferation of rankings across the U.S. and the world misdirects prospective students from the importance of institutional fit,” Dean of Admission Richard Shaw wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “There are many, many fine colleges and universities where students can receive first class educations. To make a decision about your colleges choices based on very imprecise measurement is simply the wrong approach in the consideration of undergraduate higher education.”

For some universities, the pressure to rise in rankings may also create an incentive to misreport data to the ranking organizations. “There’s always that allegation,” Lapin said. “But we’re very straightforward about what we provide to the organization.”

Despite U.S. News’ long-standing reputation, its ability to accurately represent college quality may be losing authenticity.

“There’s a strong disadvantage to public universities,” Lapin said. “The way [U.S. News] weight financial criteria, there’s no way a public university could be in their top 10.”

Traditionally, the highest-ranking public university on the U.S. News ranking is UC-Berkeley, coming in 22nd in 2011.

Shaw said he has not participated in U.S. News’ “reputational survey,” where the organization asks university officials to rate their peer institutions, for “many years.”

“My opinion is magazines that rank everything are less interested in the public good and more so on their bottom line,” Shaw said.

In response to the growing dissatisfaction with traditional rankings within higher education, more alternative and tailored rankings are appearing with varying methodologies. As a result, rankings this year varied greatly in some cases from U.S. News.

Forbes entered the college rankings arena in 2008, and this year ranked Stanford as sixth, emphasizing student evaluations of professors, graduation rates and alumni percentages in “Who’s Who in America.”

Washington Monthly, on the other hand, released a ranking that emphasized social mobility, research and service initiatives at universities, and Stanford placed fourth behind three UCs–UC-San Diego, UC-Berkeley and UC-Los Angeles, respectively.

The Princeton Review ranked Stanford third for “happiest students,” but The Daily Beast ranked Stanford as the top “most stressful school,” a measure that took into account crime rate, presence of engineering programs on campus and tuition costs, but didn’t factor in financial aid.

And Stanford took fifth in a Sierra Club “100 Cool Schools” for its environmentally friendly programs. A Wall Street Journal ranking that emphasized a school’s ability to create employable graduates did not rank Stanford, but Lapin said the request for the information came to the school without enough time to fill it out comprehensively, and therefore the University “declined to participate.”

Whether or not rankings will grow in variety or methodologies will stay the same, Shaw’s feelings about the practice in general remain unchanged.

“This process is in the end about best fit and not bragging rights,” Shaw said. “Pride should be focused on the positive undergraduate experience a student will have in choosing the college which best fits his or her needs.”

Ellen Huet is currently a senior staff writer at The Daily; she joined the staff in fall 2008 and served one volume as managing news editor in fall and early winter of 2010-2011. Reach her at ehuet at stanford dot edu. Fan mail and sternly worded complaints are equally welcome.

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Applications Due Soon