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Looking behind the college rankings

By Carl E. Zylstra

When people ask me whether they should pay attention to national college rankings, my mischievous answer generally is, "Only if Dordt College did really well." And I suspect that's the general reaction of most of my presidential colleagues. If our college or university doesn't do well, we point out the flaws in the whole ranking system. But if we do well, we can't seem to stop talking about it.

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Once again this year Dordt College has done well in the most common U.S. ranking system, the US News and World Report annual Best Colleges survey. This year, out of 109 colleges and universities in our category of "Comprehensive Midwest Colleges," Dordt College ranked thirteenth in the overall quality evaluation. Personally, I think that's pretty good for a college that isn't even fifty years old, especially when most of our colleague institutions in that category have been around for about a century and a half.

At the same time, I am willing to point out some flaws in the system. The greatest flaw is that what we consider our greatest quality isn't even measured-namely our biblical, Reformed perspective. I'm well aware that it would be hard for a secular magazine to create a comparison scale for institutional worldview, so I'm not faulting the magazine. Yet this is a good reason why Christian parents and students must go beyond the top tier lists put together by the publishing industry. It's good to ask whether the college we're considering for enrollment really will enhance and strengthen our deeply felt religious convictions.

The second flaw is that most of these rankings only evaluate the ten percent of the week that students spend in class. They don't begin to sort through the other ninety percent of the week that makes up the full-orbed education of a residential college campus. That's particularly important for Christian students. Recently a national magazine published an article by a college student who gave advice to Christian freshmen on how to avoid being brainwashed by the politically correct secular relativism that governs student life on most campuses. She began by pointing out that you certainly shouldn't attend orientation because it may well be little more than an attempt to convince you that your own family's views on faith, lifestyle, and human sexuality is nothing more than bigotry that you need to outgrow in favor of the diverse ways of thinking that make up their university. So again, it's good to ask whether the college we're considering for our family is one that values and cherishes-or will mock and undermine-the lifestyle and beliefs that we believe are at the foundation of our Christian discipleship.

The third flaw is that most of these rankings don't consult students themselves. For instance, the US News rankings puts great emphasis on whether the college has avoided having many large classes. They never ask whether the students themselves prefer small classes. They never ask whether the professors are effective in teaching those classes. They never ask students whether they prefer to trade a somewhat traditional balance between large introductory classes and very initiate upper level classes for a more uniform size class throughout. My advice is to make a campus visit and talk with current students and recent graduates to get a sense of how they respond to the actual education they have received.

There are, however, a few guides that try to address some of these issues. For instance, this year the Princeton Review also included Dordt College as a "Best in the Midwest" selection in their Best Midwestern Colleges publication. Dordt was included primarily on the basis of student evaluations that the publishers themselves independently had solicited on campus. Personally, I was pleased that the reviewers summarized the responses of the students that called attention to the pervasively Christian structure of campus life and the curriculum together with the personal care and attention received from professors. Admittedly, those qualities are harder to measure than class sizes and giving rates-but they also give a better flavor for the campus than a stark listing of 109 colleges.

On the other hand, I wouldn't ignore ratings such as US News. From my own observation it seems that the US News system does at least tell us something about the general quality and reputation of the colleges they list. And I'd suggest that the most meaningful of all is the alumni giving rate, a category in which (not coincidentally) Dordt College led the field this year. After all, a foundational question when considering a college ought to be, "Do the graduates of this college value their own experience enough to provide a financial gift to help ensure a similar education for the next generation as well?" And right after alumni giving, I'd pay special attention to the reputation ranking by presidents and deans of colleague institutions. They may not all share the values and religious perspective of the college but they do have a pretty good sense of whether students can get a solid education there.

And even though it probably doesn't mean much to be 13th as opposed to 12th or 14th, I'm convinced that these public rankings can provide a pretty good approximation of the institutional strength and academic integrity of the listed institutions.

In short, my advice is this. Start by looking for a college that will help you understand yourself, God's world, and your place of service in God's world. And then, from among those colleges that meet this basic consideration, you'll probably do well to consult a number of the published rankings in order to see just how the places you're looking at shape up in the general constellation of colleges and universities. In the end, then, you will be able to find a college that will enable you to be well prepared for a lifetime of service in God's kingdom, whatever the vocation to which he calls you.