College in the ranks

Rankings are always at the center of attention when it comes to college football. And unless some stroke of luck pits the No. 1 and No. 2 teams together at the end of the season, fans and commentators let it be known that the season ended in a wash. But what about when it comes to ranking the actual colleges themselves? The criteria are different, but when it comes to controversy, it can play out the same way.

Every year, U.S. News and World Report magazine puts out an entire guide on picking the right university. And every year, they take flack for printing bogus findings and for possibly misleading the public.

“I am extremely skeptical that the quality of a university—any more than the quality of a magazine—can be measured statistically,” former president of Stanford University Gerhard Casper said in an open letter to the editor of U.S. News. “However, even if it can, the producers of the U.S. News rankings remain far from discovering the method.”

Even a study done by the National Opinion Research Council couldn’t find a real basis for the rankings: “The principal weakness of the current approach is that the weights used to combine various measures into an overall rating lack any defensible empirical or theoretical basis.”

Even so, parents snatch up the issue every fall and use it to determine where they might send off their children.

In Reno, the rankings seem to have less of an impact on students. The University of Nevada, Reno, is ranked in the third of four tiers—that lands the school in about the middle of the top 249 universities in the country. To UNR students like Ryan McLaughlin, the rankings are meaningless.

“It was simple: Whatever [university] was the cheapest was the one I was going to go to,” McLaughlin said. “Me being from Reno, it was the easiest choice.”

Cost wasn’t the only thing that kept McLaughlin from pondering the rankings, though.

“I’ve seen studies show that those who go to Ivy League schools and pay tons of money. When they graduate, it has no effect on how far they get in the job world,” he said.

While rankings may not necessarily be used as a deciding factor in where to go to college, in terms of prestige and a general snapshot of a university, they do hold water for many. Besides UNR, U.S. News’ third tier includes universities like Arizona State, DePaul, Kansas State, Temple and West Virginia.

"When I look down the rankings, what registers with me is the company we keep," said UNR spokesman Greg Bortolin. "And if you look at that, I think we are doing all right."