Friday, April 8, 2011

More on bogus rankings - "The Best Colleges"

Last year, I wrote about what I described as "embarrassingly bad" rankings published by Bloomberg Businessweek.  Those rankings were based on the return on investment earned by students attending various colleges, and in the post I described why they were suspect.

Last week, Penn State issued a press release touting its World Campus' selection as the "the No. 1 online institution for 2011."  This designation was conferred by the website,, which I had never heard of before - and I've seen lots of different rankings over the years.  So I spent a little bit of time going through the website, and after about 30 minutes or so, I sent this message to Penn State's Director of Public Information:
I read your press release, and not having heard of “Best Colleges,” took a look at the website.  Unless you have some information establishing the validity and/or reputation of the website, I’d be a little cautious about how much you want to promote the WC and other rankings from this site.  While they say “We do not accept paid placements for our school rankings,” it appears to me that this is a site supported entirely by advertising fees from universities.  When you do a search for any of the degrees they show there (not the rankings, but a degree search), no matter what the degree, you get a list of for the most part for-profit and online universities, and very few of what most of us would consider more traditional universities whose quality and rankings are more universally recognized.

Here are the “criteria” they say they use to calculate the rankings for the 25 best online universities:

“We’ve relied on the following criteria to generate our online colleges and universities rankings: student satisfaction (as measured by graduation and retention rates), peer and instructional quality (as measured by acceptance rate and student-teacher ratio), affordability (as measured by tuition costs and availability of financial aid), and credibility (as measured by years of accreditation, reputation and awards).”

To be blunt, this is garbage.  Graduation and retention rates are not measures of student satisfaction, any more than acceptance rates and student-teacher ratios are measures of peer and instructional quality.

We can all agree there are problems with the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but they are at least considered reputable by most parties.  I would be cautious about trumpeting rankings from “Best Colleges” externally unless you know more about this organization (which I’d be interested in hearing).

Don Heller
There may be more substance to this website and their purported "rankings," but I certainly couldn't see it.  If you click on the "About" page for the website, this is all it says:
The Best Colleges reviews publicly available data and then produces independent ranking assessments of colleges in various disciplines. Our goal is to produce resources that are useful to prospective students. We recognize that no ranking system is perfect, and for this reason we recommend that our ratings be used only as a general guide when choosing a quality school.
We do not accept paid placements for our school rankings as this would defeat our primary goal of creating resources that students find useful.
They may not "accept paid placements" for their school rankings, but it appears that they do have quite a bit of advertising from many of the schools that do end up being ranked. And I'm guessing that they get click-through fees for students who go from their website to these schools.

I'd be happy to hear from anyone who has more information about this website.


  1. Don,
    My suspicions were raised about this website, too. I did a litte digging last night and found something interesting that I'll email you about.

  2. I've finally put up a blog post up with what I've discovered about this ranking.