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UC Berkeley Was Ranked the Top American University. But What Does it Mean?

Experts are skeptical of college rankings.

January 31, 2022
by Gitanjali Poonia
#1 foam finger

We’re No. 1!

In September, UC Berkeley was ranked the top American university by Forbes magazine. It was also ranked the No. 1 public school in America, sixth among both public and private schools nationally, and eighth globally, in the Times Higher Education 2022 World University Rankings.

That certainly gives the Cal community plenty to crow about. It also raises a question; the last time Forbes issued its rankings, in 2019, Berkeley came in at 13. Did things change that much in two years?

As it happens, Forbes suspended its college rankings for a year during the pandemic and revamped its methodology to look more closely at accessibility and students’ financial outcomes, a change that by and large benefited public research universities. “Public universities provide broader access to higher education than private elite universities and do a much better job in helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed,” explained Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. “So, this result is not surprising.”

That said, Chirikov urges readers to view college rankings critically.

“All university rankings mislead the public,” according to Chirikov, by presenting “a linear hierarchy of universities,” thereby giving the false impression that, say, the 25th-ranked university is far worse than the top-ranked one. “This image is inaccurate and misinforms prospective students and their families. Instead, studies show that universities within certain clusters of institutions (e.g., public research universities or liberal arts colleges) provide very similar quality experiences to students, but do so in their own distinct ways that rankings fail to capture.”

He adds that universities “collaborate far more than they compete, and rankings do not reflect that aspect of the academic enterprise.”

There are myriad other ways in which college rankings are flawed, says Chirikov, including the extent to which international rankings rely on published research and citation scores—a metric that can be gamed by unscrupulous institutions. Reliance on published research also biases rankings toward English-speaking institutions as there is less representation of non-English-language journals in citation databases.

Berkeley statistics Professor Philip Stark shares Chirikov’s dim view of college rankings. “To reduce multiple criteria … into a single scale so that universities can be compared is intrinsically arbitrary,” Stark said in an email. “It generally amounts to assigning weights to the individual criteria, then summing. There are infinitely many ways of doing it and different weights can lead to different ranking.… I would not be surprised if tweaking the weights could reorder the top 10 schools dozens of ways.”

If rankings are flawed, how should we evaluate schools? Chirikov feels a better alternative would be a rating system—one “that assesses various aspects of college experience but does not rank institutions in relation to one another.… Not only is it a more accurate representation of institutional diversity in higher education but also is a much more equitable approach.”

In the meantime, we’re still No. 1. We’re also smart enough to take it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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