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More Rankings Are Out, and BU Grades Well

University is 54 in one global survey, GSM is high in another

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Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Choosing a college can be a bit like shopping for a car: books such as the Princeton Review’s Best 371 Colleges become some prospective students’ Blue Book. Consumer guides are forever trying to get under the hoods of institutions of higher learning, defining academic measures of reliability and performance.

The problem is that an education cannot be measured like miles per gallon.

Even so, rankings continue to play a major role in the public perception of universities, and they often factor into success in the job market after graduation.

Boston University has been ranked positively by several publications in the past few months, on both a national and an international scale.

Times Higher Education, a British publication that ranks schools globally, recently published “Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings,” and BU was ranked 54th out of 200 universities, 20th in the United States.

Several American schools were bumped from the list or dropped in overall ranking (including BU, which placed 46th last year), pushed lower by the appearance on the list of more European and Asian schools.

“Results [suggest] that the dominance of the traditionally elite universities is increasingly being challenged,” the journal says. More than 9,300 academics and 3,200 employers were surveyed, and scores were based on academic peer review, employer review, international faculty and student ratios, student-faculty ratio, and the publishing track records of faculty.

Harvard was number one for the fourth year in a row. The University of Cambridge, Yale University, University College London, Imperial College London, and the University of Oxford rounded out the top five (University College and Imperial College were tied for fifth).

New York University, often compared with BU, was ranked 52 and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was 78. Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school, was ranked 85. Boston College and Northeastern were not on the list.

On the graduate side, The Economist recently ranked BU’s Graduate School of Management 23rd in North America in its “Which MBA” ranking. GSM came in 40th internationally and first for “recruiter diversity.”

The study surveyed current students and alumni, basing its judgment on four criteria — the extent to which the program opens new career opportunities; the level of personal development and educational experience; postprogram increase in salary; and if the program results in networking opportunities.

The University of Navarra IESE Business School in Spain was ranked number one, the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland was ranked second, and the University of California at Berkeley was ranked third. In America, BU fared better than Rice University, Georgetown, and Ohio State.

Perhaps the most popular and influential publication for undergraduate ranking, Princeton Review’s Best 371 Colleges, listed BU in its 2010 edition, published in July. The Princeton Review doesn’t pit schools against one another with an overall numerical ranking; rather, it gives credit to each school on the list. It does rank in different areas, such as “Happiest Students,” “Best Classroom Experience,” and “Scotch and Soda, Hold the Scotch” (schools ranked for the least drinking and partying). BU was in the top 20 on “Best College Town,” the only list it placed on — more a compliment to Boston than to the school, but still a plus.

The Princeton Review doesn’t rank schools from 1 to 371, because “such lists — particularly those driven by and perpetuating a ‘best academics’ mania — are not useful.” Instead, it gives a “Quality of Life” rating, which is supposed to measure students’ campus experiences outside the classroom. On a scale of 60 to 99, the higher the number the better, BU scored an 82. By way of comparison, Boston College scored 93, Northeastern 87, Tufts 85, and NYU 72.

Most of the major schools in the Boston area — Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Tufts, Northeastern, Emerson — were included on the list.

The Review came up with the rankings by asking students 80 questions about academics, administration, campus life, student body, and their own lives and lifestyles.

Are rankings worthwhile?
While it’s an honor to receive accolades, some wonder whether rankings are too subjective and arbitrary to be of much worth. Large urban universities are compared to small liberal arts schools, which some see as comparing apples to oranges. Rankings are often based on votes of current students and professors, all of whom have biases. Roommates moving side by side through their college years will offer polar opposite opinions of their education, both sincere, both well founded.

But as any high school senior will tell you, ranking books are like the Bible when it comes to college searches. And current students see that a higher school ranking can help them get a foot in the job market after graduation.

The study “Getting on the Front Page: Organizational Reputation, Status Signals, and the Impact of U.S. News and World Report,” published in the journal Research in Higher Education, found that moving onto the front page of the U.S. News rankings gives a university a significant boost in the following year’s admissions, as does a change in a school’s “tier” level. Since 1995, the proportion of students who say the ratings are very important when choosing a college increased by more than 50 percent.

So much for the irrelevant argument.

Rankings mattered to Charlie Cox (CAS’11), but he says that they pale in comparison to impressions formed during a visit to campus. “They’re just numbers,” he says. “They don’t matter until you go look and check the school out.”

Brittany Rehmer (COM’11) based her college decision on rankings, she says, and regrets that now. She was accepted by both Northeastern and BU and was given the same financial aid package; she chose BU because it is ranked higher.

“In retrospect, I wish I’d chosen Northeastern because of their co-op program,” she says. “I have two friends who go there, and they already know where they’re working after graduation.”

Rankings are a good place to begin, says Seamus Mullarkey, senior editor of the Princeton Review’s Best 371 Colleges. “The college search is an intimidating process,” he says, “and we try to help narrow it down.” Ranking becomes a point of departure. “Once you’ve noticed the ranking of a school that you’re interested in, investigate further.”

Kelly Walter, executive director of undergraduate admissions at BU, is pleased by how well the University placed in this year’s rankings, but cautions students to take them with a grain of salt. “Rankings are a way of the world; everything is ranked, from cars to communities,” she says. “Do they matter to the admissions office? I think they do. When BU moves up, of course it’s good news.”

Schools are not above positioning themselves to improve their rankings, another sign that like it or not, the lists matter. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a study in 2007, “Playing the Rankings Game,” which details strategies used to win approval from the likes of Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report.

Different ways a university may improve its ranking, the study says, include soliciting alumni donations to raise giving percentages, encouraging applications from students the school has no intention of accepting (to raise the total and make itself seem more selective), and creatively interpreting how to report required data.

“Colleges are reluctant to admit that they ‘game’ the figures,” the study asserts, “but most such methods are so well known that many officials assume that most of their competitors engage in them.”

Does all this emphasis on rank and subjective comparison improve a student’s education? Not likely. Neither are numbers capable of expressing the feel of a school, whether it would be a good fit for a particular high school senior.

“I think rankings are a place to begin,” Walter says. “They’re no substitution for doing your research, for talking to people, and coming to visit.”

That said, she says what any good director of admissions would after receiving some ranking accolades: “It’s certainly a public acknowledgement of the great things that we know are taking place at BU.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

6 Comments

6 Comments on More Rankings Are Out, and BU Grades Well

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2009 at 11:25 am

    “So much for the irrelevant argument…” great work, especially trying to not be biased with a ranking story (no sarcasm intended, seriously!). It does put colleges in a strange position: no we don’t want rankings, but at the same time we do…

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2009 at 11:26 am

    SMG!

    Go SMG! way to keep BU legit!

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2009 at 3:15 pm

    well written article

    Good Job Amy – you covered this story from many angles. A few I would not have though of. Well done.

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2009 at 4:55 pm

    More like we want competitions that we win

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2009 at 7:39 pm

    the article is well-balanced and enjoyable. keep up the good work!

  • Anonymous on 11.05.2009 at 3:32 pm

    Good job!

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