The University of Michigan is ranked 29th in the 2012-2013 U.S. News and World Report. While changes in these annual rankings regularly bring both praise and concern, the importance placed on the calculated numbers is often undue. Current ranking systems like that of the U.S. News and World Report raise questions of both universities distorting statistics and the reports’ own calculation mechanisms. College rankings are by and large flawed, and fail to adequately capture many aspects of higher education. Until ranking systems are improved, administrators and students should be wary of putting much consideration into a school’s ranking.

Under the current U.S. News ranking method, schools are blindly rewarded for spending more per student — even if that increase in spending doesn’t reflect a higher quality education. When a university, for example, spends millions on creating state-of-the-art fitness centers, their ranking could get a hefty boost. However, certain cost-cutting behaviors, even those that benefit the university as a whole, may decrease a school’s score.

According to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, over the past decade the University has worked on controlling costs on behind-the-scene expenses, such as efficient building maintenance. Though consolidation of heating and cooling systems saved the University money on non-academic expenditures, freeing more funding for educational spending, the U.S. News noted this cost cutting as simply a drop in spending per student. Such ranking systems thus tend to overlook efficient spending, rewarding indiscriminate expenses over innovation and smart downsizing.

Administrators can also manipulate the numbers to inflate their university’s standing, misrepresenting the validity of the rankings. In 2012, officials at both Claremont McKenna College in California and Emory University in Georgia admitted to inflating test scores of their incoming freshman classes in their own university’s admission reports. Despite the schools’ acknowledgement of these fabrications, the U.S. News and World Report rankings did not adjust for the inflated SAT scores. In other words, falsified test scores didn’t reduce the ranking of these colleges. This policy sets a precedent for administrators that rewards dishonesty with status.

The U.S. News system also includes an administrative rank. University officials rank other schools based on academic reputation on a scale of one to five, or “don’t know” if the administrator is unfamiliar with the institution. However, this academic reputation does not necessarily correlate with a better education. Ivy League schools, which usually top the U.S. News list, have the benefit of name recognition. Smaller and newer institutions, regardless of their instructional quality, are at a disadvantage when trying to improve their own ranking. In this way, such rankings are often static, and don’t capture lesser-known schools accurately.

Though college rankings offer a convenient measure to compare schools, such calculations leave out several key factors, such as atmosphere and community engagement, while overemphasizing general spending and reputation. Students and administrators should exercise caution when taking these numbers into account.

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