Universities may rank differently based on students’ interests

Julia Krum/HIGHLANDER
Julia Krum/HIGHLANDER

UC Riverside has earned a respectable place at number 113 in the U.S. News and World Report 2017 Best Global University Rankings, which lists what U.S. News considers the top 1,000 universities in the world. This puts UCR at ninth place out of all 10 UCs on this ranking, above only UC Merced, which came in at number 687. While it might be fun to use these rankings to boast about UCR and talk smack about other colleges, they shouldn’t be taken as an absolute, one-size-fits-all measure of a university’s worth for all students. The value of these rankings vary, depending on the criteria examined and the needs and interests of the students who look at them.

Bear in mind that U.S. News’ rankings are a result of their particular methodology, grading criteria and how much weight they assigned to each criterion. U.S. News looked primarily at each universities’ amount of published papers and how often said papers were cited by others. Other magazines and research centers produce vastly different rankings, even when using similar criteria. The Center for World University Rankings, for example, published a ranking for universities based mainly on the number of faculty and alumni who have received “major international awards,” and focused less on research. Times Higher Education’s ranking largely examined universities’ teaching environments, research and citations to this research. Naturally, none of these rankings agreed completely on their top 10 universities, or even their top five.

The differences in each ranking’s grading and the resulting lists indicate that current and prospective students shouldn’t take any one ranking as an absolute, unquestionable determination of a university’s value. Prospective students need to juggle several factors when picking the right university for them, such as the programs they offer, affordability and housing opportunities. Most will likely not have the luxury of picking a college based only on how it stacks up against others in these rankings.

In fact, a 2012 study conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute demonstrated that national rankings ranked 12th out of 23 factors that students listed as “very important” when choosing what college to attend. National rankings were listed as “very important” by only 18.2 percent of participants, while academic reputation came first at 63.8 percent. According to these results, the value of college rankings always depends on the interests and needs of the students reading them. Therefore, prospective students should always scrutinize the grading criteria these rankings use before accepting their assertions as fact. For example, a university which is considered the “best” in theater programs might not necessarily have a good electrical engineering program, so that ranking wouldn’t be very valuable for prospective electrical engineering students.

Yet, these rankings are still potentially valuable for current UCR students, as well as our faculty and alumni. Naturally, I will always consider UCR to be number one, but apparently U.S. News believes that 112 universities are “better,” at least according to their criteria. With some research, we could use this ranking and others to determine what these other colleges are doing better than us, and use those findings toward the improvement of our education. The best motivation for self-improvement is always a little rivalry and competition.

The more that institutes and research centers attempt to figure out what college is the best overall, the less helpful their rankings will be to students. While it’s nice of U.S. News to give UCR the 113th place on their list, such a title is not the most important thing for students to worry about. Rankings that are more geared toward particular aspects such as majors, financial aid or housing opportunities are more helpful to students. For example, a student who wants to get into the bioengineering field would benefit more from a ranking which specifically lists which colleges have good bioengineering programs, rather than a ranking which tries to figure out the “best” college overall.

I consider UCR the best college for me because of its creative writing program, tuition cost and proximity to my home. However, I can’t say it’s the best university for every prospective student in Riverside because I don’t know what all of their individual needs and interests are. If they want to get something out of their university experience that UCR can’t offer, then it may not be the best university for them. Same goes for any college, no matter how prestigious or high-ranking it may be. Students should always scrutinize these “best college in the world” rankings and check their methodology before taking their word as fact.

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