How Important Are the Rankings?

A survey of public-affairs students reveals what influences their choice of schools.

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How important are rankings in determining which school a student chooses to attend? This question is always widely debated, but there are rarely empirical data to make a firm conclusion. There is now more evidence to suggest that the U.S. News graduate school public-affairs rankings are not the driving force in admission decisions but are a key source of information to help decide the right school to attend.

The results of a 2008 student poll of about 3,200 master's degree graduate students in public administration and public policy at 265 schools shed some light on how influential the U.S. News rankings are to this field. Officials at the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, which conducted the survey, point out that the poll was not conducted under strict social science standards, but they have no reason to think the results are not representative of students' views.

Let's take a closer look at how the results reference the U.S. News rankings. One question asked, "How did you first learn of the Master of Public Policy or Master of Public Administration degree?" Respondents said their most important source was the Internet (21.8 percent), followed by a fellow student or friend (14.1 percent). The U.S. News public affairs rankings werein sixth place at only 3.9 percent.

A second question was "To what degree did each of these informational sources contribute to the decision you made in selecting a specific Master of Public Policy or Master of Public Administration school?" The U.S. News rankings came in third, cited as being "somewhat important" or "very important" by a combined 54.8 percent of the respondents. The Web and search engines were first at 63.3 percent, and relatives and friends were second at 58.4 percent.

A third question was "Rate the significance of the following items in your decision to select the graduate school program you attend now; or attended." Among the factors cited as being "very important," our rankings came in last at 25.4 percent. Respondents rated location first at 77.9 percent, quality of faculty second at 62.5 percent, area of specialization third at 56.8 percent, cost fourth at 53.5 percent, and financial aid opportunities fifth.

The bottom line: These results show that the U.S. News public-affairs rankings are not the pivotal reason that students have gone to the schools they chose but rather are used as one tool in their search for the best school.