College Rankings: Overseas Comparisons Don’t Hold Water

ABC News recently reported that the United States ranks 15th out of 29 developed countries in terms of college degrees earned. While such reports may be telling when it comes to the educational opportunities offered in certain parts of the world, they hardly take into account the greater picture.
On paper, ranking 15th out of 29 looks mediocre, if not flat-out bad. After all, the United States is officially ranking in the bottom 50th percentile, right? Yet, in the case of this report, not enough information is taken into account, so this ranking can easily be manipulated. For example, in the report, Switzerland is one country that ranked above the United States, awarding 26 degrees for every 100 students enrolled. Comparatively, the United States only awarded 18 degrees.
Switzerland is also a country with a population of roughly 7.5 million people according to the CIA World Factbook. By contrast, the United States has a population of over 300 million. As such, to accommodate this population, there is a greater amount of universities and colleges to consider and while on average only 18 degrees may be awarded per 100 students, this does not mean that this average rings true for all American universities.
Even the smallest countries contain tremendous diversity, which an individual may not be able to appreciate fully if they have lived a lifetime in that nation. When numbers such as these are applied to them, they fail to account accurately for even the broadest differences among a country’s population, not to mention more minute qualities. For instance, in U.S. News & World Report’s national university rankings for 2009, Massachusetts includes two of the four highest ranked colleges in the nation. Given that retention is among the criteria considered for these rankings, it may be reasonable to conclude that the state of Massachusetts may award a higher number of degrees than South Carolina, which does not contain any universities ranked among the top 60.
Yet, it is all still America. According to the information reported by ABC News, states are lumped together whether they are underperforming or overperforming. Because of this, it only appears that Switzerland is more able to grant a college degree than an American university, even if that university is located in a state that performs exceptionally well in education.
If anything, these college rankings are representative of how easily numbers can be manipulated. Even the information compiled by U.S. News & World Report is subject to error. For instance, whereas the information reported by ABC News takes too little into account, U.S. News & World Report attempts to cover too much in their various college and university rankings.
While setting criteria to rank universities may be difficult, the ones chosen by U.S. News & World Report for their national university rankings seem reasonable enough. Aside from retention rate, other factors include peer assessment, faculty resources and financial resources, among others.
Although simply selecting and compiling this information may be difficult enough without running into some problems, it may be more difficult to decide which areas should be given more or less weight. For instance, a university could have excellent faculty resources and poor financial resources and be ranked below a university that has a more balanced mixture of each. These rankings could easily be discredited if the former was purposely over-utilizing its financial resources in order to draw in new professors for faculty resources in order to assure sustainability.
With such minute possibilities to consider at the national level, making comparisons at the international level is only more difficult. This is because international rankings have more variables to consider. One example is the individual relationships between various governments and their universities. For example, university rankings on an international scale may assess two universities in different countries, which are of roughly the same financial means. Yet if one country’s federal government offers monetary resources to all of its universities and the other does not, this could have a bearing on the true extent of each university’s resources.
Because the world is growing ever more complicated due to the expansion of populations, the emergence of new technologies and the raising of standards, it is comforting to find solace in cold, hard numbers. However, when examining these numbers, flaws are found. With this in mind, while rankings may be appealing, it is always more difficult to look for the truth than to be told a simple lie.

Daniel Johnson is a fourth-year literary journalism and film and media studies double-major. He can be reached at dcjohnso@uci.edu.