If you're reading this, you may have already decided to go to university but are still debating where to go. Or, maybe you have already decided where you'd like to go, but need some reassurance. The obvious starting point would be to consult the university rankings. You reach for the latest Maclean's University Rankings, lured by the teaser, "Which Universities Get Top Marks?" and read on only to find, to your dismay, that the school you had in mind didn't even make the top 50. Now what? Your immediate reaction might be to scratch that school off your list. Stop right there. Before you cancel your plans, there are some things you should know about university rankings.
How do rankings work and what do they mean? Sure, university ranking matters, but it may matter more to universities than to prospective students. University ranking is one way to help you select a school, but it isn't your only resource; nor is it the most reliable.
Ranking only seems complicated, with its tables and statistics. But essentially, it is a composite of criteria that provides an overall measure of an institution's quality and performance. Common criteria include: average entering grade acceptance rates, number of students continuing with postgraduate study, size of library, number of PhDs on the faculty, and record of faculty research and publications. Not all criteria are given equal weight - one criterion may account for 60 percent of the score, another 20 percent, and two others 10 percent each. Although this formula makes it impossible for an institution to achieve a high overall score by being excellent in only one category, it also makes it possible for two institutions to obtain similar scores despite their possessing widely different strengths and weaknesses.
Who does university rankings in Canada? University ranking is largely a product created by the media-notably, Maclean's magazine and The Globe and Mail. Their annual rankings of Canadian universities are published in The Maclean's University Rankings and The Globe and Mail's University Report Card respectively. However, the two publications differ significantly with respect to methodology, presentation of results and clustering of institutions.
You're probably wondering which one to consult and whether the ratings are even reliable. Well, you could compare the ratings of each source then draw your own conclusions; or you could throw the rankings out the window, which is what most critics suggest you do. These critics are the universities themselves, and not just the lower ranking ones, but also the prominent ones such as the University of Toronto, which has scored top marks year after year. Like their U.S. counterparts, Canadian university presidents have banded together and rejected Maclean's ranking methodology as flawed and oversimplified.
University rankings unfortunately tend to rate institutions according to how closely they resemble the esteemed universities that continue to score top marks year after year. The higher the ratings the greater the chances of drawing eminent faculty members, more students, and larger endowments that, in turn, increase the institution's bottom line and thus, its prestige. This is why you often see the same institutions in the top five-ranked spots every year.
It comes as no surprise then, that university rankings are being criticized for putting power, money, and class distinctions ahead of "real" values, such as teaching effectiveness, student learning and retention, and student satisfaction. The media defend the rankings, saying the results reflect measurable, objective criteria -- even though determining how much weight should be given to each aspect is still under debate. As it stands now, the media defend their methodology saying it reflects what is most important.
Is there anything positive about university rankings? The good news about university rankings is that it has done good things for smaller universities. Several schools that previously didn't make the cut are now ranking above some of the traditionally prestigious schools. While the ranking methods that help these smaller schools are the same flawed criteria, at least students have nevertheless benefited by being exposed to more postsecondary institutions to choose from.
Other sources Don't despair. University rankings are only one source of information. There are others that provide more balanced ratings and more relevant information for students. For example, Maclean's and The Globe and Mail have added supplemental information to their websites, incorporating students' own assessments of their schools. They also provide university ranking tools that allow students to select university performance criteria and weight them according to their preferences.
Universities have taken ranking into their own hands, too, conducting their own surveys and developing online tools to present information to prospective students. One example is The Common University Data Ontario (CUDO), developed by the Council of Ontario Universities and representing 18 Ontario universities. Each university conducts its own student surveys and presents the results together with general academic information on its own website. The kind of information you find on CUDO includes student satisfaction, tuition fees by program, and number of teaching faculty.
And, you can also turn to two prominent surveys commissioned by Canadian and U.S. colleges and universities-the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC). The NSSE compares performance across all universities in the U.S. and Canada in five key areas:
1) Level of Academic Challenge 2) Student-Faculty Interaction 3) Active and Collaborative Learning 4) Enriching Educational Experience
5) Supportive Campus Environment
The CUSC is a Canadian survey, and although similar to the NSSE in that it focuses on student reports, it differs in that it is mainly focused on student satisfaction. Both surveys are available online.
Taken together, these two surveys should give you a better feel for what the universities are like from a student's perspective academically and socially. Armed with these surveys and the new and evolving online resources and tools, you will be better prepared to make an informed decision about the path that will help you best meet your educational goals.