What High School Students Really Think of the Rankings

High school students use the rankings as just one tool in their college search.


U.S. News and our chief critic, Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy, apparently now agree on at least one thing that is very important: The U.S. News college rankings aren't what high school students are focusing on or worried about when they are going through the college application process.

Thacker did not mention U.S. News once at his session "College Admissions: What Are Students Learning?" on September 29 at the 2007 annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Instead, he spoke about "how the selective admissions experience is shaping students' attitudes and behaviors" based on the results of a research project conducted by the Education Conservancy. The organization conducted eight focus groups at high schools in Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago (half public and half private high schools) to learn about the views of high-achieving students toward the college admission process.

In these discussions, the students rarely mentioned the U.S. News rankings as a stress factor in the admissions process. Instead, they cited other key factors, such as what they believe is a lack of fairness overall and too much importance placed on the SAT. As a result of the focus groups, it seems, Thacker appears to be changing his emphasis, moving away from criticizing the America's Best Colleges rankings. The fact that high school students aren't focused on the rankings makes complete sense to U.S. News, because we think that students are using the rankings responsibly as just one tool in their college search process.

According to the Education Conservancy study, these were some of the key findings from the high school student focus groups:

1. Students dislike disingenuous college recruiting. Generic marketing materials, college fairs, and information sessions are unappealing and too much like sales pitches. They dislike being encouraged to apply to a college even whey they have no chance of admission.

2. Students feel pressured to do things for the sole purpose of gaining admission, such as participating in extracurricular activities, taking multiple Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, and engaging in various forms of SAT preparation.

3. Students receive conflicting message from colleges. Colleges say they want well-rounded students, which is discouraging for many students with passions or unique qualities. Colleges also seem to expect students to know their majors and life goals.

4. Students would like to take more courses that interest them but feel that it is a gamble to pursue their true interests.

5. Students believe that colleges cannot, and do not, judge applicants in a fair and objective way.

Let's hope the Education Conservancy now tries to help fix the real issues that affect students.