Should You Pick A University Based on Rankings?

The latest issue of Maclean’s recently came out. It’s their University Rankings ’08 issue – their 18th annual ranking of Canadian universities against a number of criteria: performance of students, faculty, experience of students, reputation as seen by academics and employers, and then an overall ranking.

Let’s say you’re reading this rankings list as a university student (colleges, like RDC, don’t show up on the list) and you find your particular school is either ranked very high or very low. Should you be thrilled if it’s high? Should you demand reform and quickly transfer to a more highly-ranked school if it’s low? Or let’s say you’re a prospective university student, coming straight into a university program or else from a transfer institution (like RDC). The school you had in mind isn’t ranked as highly as you’d like? Should you be basing your decision on where to attend school depending on which schools rank highest?

Well, there are some reasons to pay attention to the rankings. There are also other reasons to make your decision WITHOUT concerning yourself too much over the rankings. Let’s explore.

Here are a few reasons you might want to pay attention to rankings:
– The criteria used to rank schools is thorough, varied, and can be useful. Do you want to know how undergraduate students feel about the school you’re interested in so you can get an idea of what your own experience might be like? Well, a look at the rankings done by students can help sway your decision. What do students really think of the school they’re attending? Or, is it important to you to have professors who are award-winning in their field? Have a look at how schools rank based on the awards/grants received by the faculty. Do you want to go to school with other students who are winning awards as well? Look at that criteria too.
– Are you trying to break into a competitive field and feel strongly that a potential employer might be interested in where you went to school? Have a look at how employers see different schools. Keep that in mind as you pick yours.
– Do you want to head on to do further studies at an Ivy League or other school that is incredibly selective about students? In this case, it MAY (not saying always) be advisable to try to attend a school that is highly ranked and also quite well-known. See the article in the Maclean’s issue about the student who feels his chances for being accepted at Brown, Yale, and Princeton were reduced because the small school he attended simply wasn’t recognizable to the admissions committee there. Think and plan accordingly.
-If you’re the type of person who just really likes the idea of attending a top-rated school, then great! Here’s a good way to see what that is. If that’s important to you, go for it!
– You’re trying to decide between a few schools that have accepted you. Everything else seems equal and you just can’t choose. You need a tiebreaker. All else being equal, maybe pick a school that’s ranked more highly. Why not?

Reasons to take the ratings with a grain of salt include:
– Subjectivity of ratings. Not to say Maclean’s doesn’t take a great scientific approach to their rankings and analyze the statistics appropriately. But all ratings have an element of subjectivity and results can get skewed in a lot of ways. For example, let’s talk about the rankings based on how employers feel about schools. Maybe they have an idea that one school is better than another and rank according to that perception. Does that mean they hire based on this perception? Not necessarily! There’s no reason to think an employer is going to hire solely based on a system of rankings they submitted to Maclean’s. They may be motivated by a number of other qualities of prospective hires that don’t show up in these rankings but are more important to employers than where the prospective hire went to school.
– Rankings can change! A school ranked highly this year may be in a downward trend and in a few years’ time, be ranked very differently. Same for a low-ranking school that is working it’s way up the list! Remember too that older schools tend to do better in terms of reputation (ie, how other people see them) because they have been around long enough to build up a strong one. Newer schools take some time to establish credibility. That is just a perception – doesn’t mean that the quality of education at a newer school is worse than that at an older school or vice versa.
– What is it you want to do? Are you interested in a career or graduate school program in particular? Research which schools offer the best programs for your goals, not how the schools rate overall. You can get a good idea of this by checking with prospective employers/graduate schools on their program recommendations, or talking with an instructor who knows about the field you are interested in working in/attending grad school in. They will likely have some very helpful insights.
– What is practical for you? Is it impossible to move? You may have to go to a school based on location, tuition, program availability, admission requirements, etc, rather than rankings. Do what is best for you. Spend your time being the best student you can be and building up your CV and resume through extra-curricular activities and volunteer work. Your grades and experience combined with your personality will likely shine through and influence your life much more than the name stamped on your degree, especially as long as your university is recognized and accredited.

Rankings are certainly food for thought. In the bigger scheme of things, are they really that important? It probably depends on how important YOU feel they are. You can get some interesting and very helpful insights from Maclean’s rankings, and those insights might well influence your decision. But at the end of the day, as always . . . it’s your choice, your experience, and your degree.

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