BC Ranked 34: Understanding Educational Rankings

By Brendan Rapple


According to the 2010 rankings conducted by US News & Word Report Boston College is ranked 34 in the category of "National Universities". Four universities are ranked below BC at 35: Georgia Institute of Technology; Lehigh University; University of California; San Diego; and the University of Rochester. The College of William and Mary, ranked at 33, is assessed, at being "better" than Boston College by US News & Word Report. What precisely do these rankings mean? Why is The College of William and Mary ranked higher than BC? In what respects is BC deemed better than Georgia Institute of Technology? What validity do these rankings have? To attempt to answer these questions one should presumably consult the section About the Rankings/Methodology furnished by the magazine.

Of course, few topics in education are as controversial as rankings in education. The issue engenders an extremely wide range of views. Indeed, the rankings of universities, and the programs taught at them, tend to be both loved and hated by university administrators, faculty, students, parents, prospective applicants. A cynic might observe that those whose own institutions and programs score highly in rankings are inclined to favor the ranking system whereas those whose institutions and programs do not fare so well are more likely to be critical of them. Still, numerous individuals are quite objective in proffering both positive and adverse criticism of the methodologies used and conclusions reached by those organizations and individuals who conduct university and program rankings. Certainly there's a prolific body of literature critiquing such rankings.

One of BC Libraries' Research Guides, Educational Rankings, lists numerous rankings of national and international universities as well as rankings of a variety of both graduate and undergraduate programs. One may access Hispanic Magazine's listing of The Top 25 Colleges for Latinos; Kiplinger's Magazine's 100 Best values in Public Colleges; the Philosophical Gourmet's Ranking of Graduate Programs in Philosophy in the English-speaking World; the Economist's rankings and overview of the World's Top 100 MBA Programs; the Times Higher Education's Top 200 World Universities; and many other rankings.

While some of the information contained in these ranking sites is clearly useful as well as being interesting, it would be wise to bear in mind that an appropriate motto for anyone using these sites and links might be caveat lector, let the reader beware! It is essential to read about and evaluate the methodology used in producing the rankings. If the website does not divulge any information about the methods, quantitative and qualitative, employed that's clearly a red flag. In addition to perusing the variety of rankings in the Educational Rankings Research Guide you might also want to delve into the rankings controversy to consult some of the documents in the Problems with Rankings section. There you can read the September 2007 statement by the President of Amherst College, co-signed by several other college presidents, warning of the "false sense that educational success or fit can be ranked in a single numerical list." Probably not bad advice!

Brendan Rapple, Collections Services Librarian, Bibliographer for Education and English Literature, O'Neill Library