College about more than rankings

It’s rankings season, and we college presidents are explaining, decrying and celebrating.

We insist rankings don’t matter and then rush to talk about how we did.

This isn’t hypocrisy on our part. Presidents know people look at rankings. They look because rankings appear to provide an objective indicator of something complicated, expensive and resistant to simple measures.

Given what students and families pay to earn a college education, this makes sense.

So, rankings can be useful — despite their flaws. More than 600 small liberal arts colleges, institutions similar to Juniata, exist in the United States alone.

Add two-year colleges, large universities, state systems, and others, and more than 4,000 options exist in the United States. Rankings provide a way to narrow the list of places to consider.

But parents and students shouldn’t look just at rankings. Magazine and newspaper articles, and books like Colleges that Change Lives (in which Juniata is mentioned) stress that there are numerous colleges that enable students to thrive. No quantitative measure, however carefully constructed, can deduce it.

I urge students and families to look at a few different indicators. Here are three other ways — beyond visiting to learn about a campus culture — to look at a college.

First, how is a college ensuring it challenges and supports its students? Juniata is a member of the Pennsylvania Consortium for the Liberal Arts, a group of 11 colleges committed to sharing best practices, creating purchasing efficiencies, and modeling how to enhance access and quality.

We also recently joined the American Talent Initiative, a group of nearly 70 nationally eminent colleges and universities, which have proven success in students earning degrees on time, committed to ensuring access to students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds.

Those examples are relevant to Juniata, but as you look at colleges, ask about the company they keep–from their athletic conference to their professional association to their recognitions.

Second, look at more than just the U.S. News Rankings. Forbes.com’s ranking prizes career and other outcome-related results.

Kiplinger’s publishes a ranking based on value, looking at measures of education quality and affordability, and Money magazine publishes a similar one.

The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a “Great Colleges to Work For” list, which is important because who wants to spend four years at a place where the people helping you are not happy about what they do?

Third, remember rankings and associations create a blurry picture. All pictures have frames, limiting what you see. Read the stories about the colleges.

I’m not talking about pieces in their alumni magazines but rather how they are covered in the popular press and how alumni react to stories, share them on social media and retell them. Look at the way the human faces behind those elegant facades act and speak about what they do and how they do it.

Rankings catch us at a moment, yet there is always more to the picture. The lists can be a helpful starting point, but remember, they are only a start.

Many institutions, including Juniata, will encourage you to look beyond just a number and to see the whole picture.

Take that look.

Troha is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon.