The fall is University Rankings season, as a bunch get released each year. Alex Usher has a nice blog post that summarizes the major ones and what they include. I’ve written posts about rankings in the past, which you can find using the search function if you wish. In general, for high school student applicants I usually suggest that they be very careful about putting too much weight on these rankings, for various reasons discussed before and illustrated below.
I was thinking about the QS Rankings which recently came out, which include a 40% weighting of “Academic Reputation” in their scoring method. This is based on a survey of academics (which I filled out a few months ago). But what does it actually mean and how is it related to decision-making for high school students? To determine that, we need to look at what is actually asked in the survey.
The survey (done online) asks academics to identify what their area of expertise is. For me, this was “Engineering & Technology”. It then asks us to identify the top ten domestic institutions we consider to be best for research in that area (notice that it is research, not undergraduate education, experiential learning, or various other things that a high school student might be concerned about). For me as a survey respondent, how should I answer? Well, I mainly know about research in Chemical Engineering, so that is going to limit my responses. The University of Windsor may have some excellent research going on, but they don’t have a chemical engineering department so I don’t know much about them. Even within the field of Chemical Engineering, I mainly follow research in the environmental and biochemical engineering areas. A number of universities don’t focus as much in these areas, so they wouldn’t come to my mind as readily as others.
So which ten should I pick? Given that I am not going to spend much time thinking about it (about 30 seconds) because I have other things to do, I will pick the first 10 that come to mind, likely because I know people there or have seen them present something interesting at a conference. (no, we can’t pick our own institution.)
In the next section of the survey we are asked to pick up to 30 international institutions that we consider best for research in our areas. The same issues apply, except now expanded. I have never done a comprehensive review of the best chemical engineering researchers around the world, so I just pick a few that I know from literature or because I have interacted with some of their faculty in the past. Obviously the large, well-established (old), and well-publicized institutions are going to get picked, places like MIT, UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, and a few others here and there. In some ways, this can boil down to a name-recognition survey. I suspect most survey respondents are like me and don’t spend more than a minute or two on this.
So that’s the survey, pretty simple and straightforward to answer, but also open to a lot of uncertainty about what various people are thinking when they answer it. And it’s very clear that it is about research (as expressed through scientific journal publications and conference presentations), not quality of teaching, student experience, curriculum, or anything like that.
As I stated above, applicants to undergraduate programs should be very careful about placing too much weight on rankings, when they may not actually measure anything relevant to their specific interests. A top international reputation for research is nice, and can be an important factor for graduate student education (Masters and PhD), but is it a critical factor for undergraduate education? Not in my opinion.