Evaluating your options in computer science or computer engineering degree programs can be a dizzying task.
Are you looking for a large school or a small school? Do you want to write software programs, build web networks, or help make research strides in artificial intelligence? Do you want a school close to home? Are you looking for a great educational value? Do you think university name recognition will help you get the job you want as a graduate?
All of these questions can be answered, to an extent, using various rankings of computer schools.
Rankings can give you an overall idea of computer schools' reputations. They are a useful tool toward finding your optimum computer school, but shouldn't be depended on alone. School rankings are too subjective and too narrow to fully and fairly evaluate your outlook on a college. It is also impossible for any school ranking to consider all the unique desires that each student brings to the table, i.e. proximity to home, family alumni, campus environment, etc. So even with rankings available, all the complex factors that go into making a college decision still have to be weighed, in the end, by the student. But computer school rankings can help to narrow the playing field!
Dr. Gary Martin, assistant dean of students at the University of the Pacific School of Engineering & Computer Science, put it more succinctly:
"Rankings are important, but not the most important factor. The best interests of a student make up 99 percent of a school decision. First, students want to know how well they'll be able to get a good job upon graduating. Secondly, they're interested in class size, and thirdly, the quality of the teachers at the institution. Students will look at two or three schools, then rankings results will finally pull students to the school's side. But rankings are probably the final determining factor only about five percent of the time," he said.
All institutions that rank computer schools do so in different ways. For example, U.S. News & World Report -- perhaps the most thorough and widely-regarded school ranking publication-- uses several differently-weighted categories to come up with a final overall score. Some of the factors that are used to evaluate colleges and universities include student graduation and retention rates, peer assessment, faculty resources, student admissions criteria, graduation rate performance, and alumni donations and other financial resources.
Other ranking systems are based only on the opinions of those in the academic community, the average earnings of graduates vs. the cost of education, or simply on the votes of students. "Some computer engineering school rankings are totally based on the opinions of deans and senior faculty," said Martin. "Annually, ranking organizations send out a list of every school to some faculty, who then choose a number from one to five to indicate how strong they think the school is. To call it a popularity contest is a little derogatory, but then popularity can be 100 percent. A voter's opinion of a school might increase if that school's football team gains notoriety."
It's not necessarily always a bad thing that most computer school rankings take a program's reputation into consideration. Reputation can, after all, affect how an employer views a potential employee. However, schools are well aware that they will be voted on annually by peers in higher education. Subsequent attempts to sway votes and jockeying to improve rankings with faculty visibility, encouraging research, and informative/promotional letters to chairs, deans, etc., can get out of hand. Some colleges have even created departments that work solely to improve the school's rankings across the board.
Rankings have nothing to do with whether an institution is qualified to teach students, according to Liz Glazer, communications manager of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), who said that rankings have absolutely no bearing on the accreditation process. What rankings say about a school's computer engineering or computer science program depends largely on how the rankings are reached-what criteria are evaluated and how heavily each factor is weighed. Depending on that, a high ranking may indicate that the school is highly regarded, has very successful students, is very selective, or any number of other conclusions.
"Rankings usually indicate quality of research. Grad students want to go where serious research is being done, and potential faculty members want to know what research their colleagues would be doing," said Dr. Mary Lou Soffa, professor and chair of the department of computer science at the University of Virginia.
High rankings can also show that a computer school's alumni support is strong.
"Donations help keep a school well-ranked. A stronger student body makes for stronger alumni support," said Dr. Martin.
Students must investigate to find how the rankings were formulated to know with certainty what they indicate about the schools in question. Even then, rankings should be taken with a grain of salt because of the discrepancies inherit with ranking systems. Rankings can show favoritism for universities of prominence and largely ignore excellent schools with a low profile. Students should also be pleased with the mention of their choice school in a ranking. You don't have to sweat it if the institution's position fluctuates a little between years or between different computer school rankings.
"Rankings are not accurate. They give some indication of the quality of a school, but students should disregard it if a school's position differs by four or five positions when comparing rankings. Rankings are based on perceptions-a department may improve or not improve, and either way, perception stays the same," said Soffa.
In the end, future computer science and computer engineering school students should use rankings as part of a comprehensive evaluation of your schools of choice. Rankings aren't a substitute for exploring what each school can offer you. Every computer college's offerings are as different as the needs and wants of each student.
"All universities are different; people have different values, abilities, and interests, and they should find a university that matches those, whether cost is the most important factor, or quality of teaching is more important to them than the research environment," said Martin.
Soffa offered this advice: "Don't look only at a ranking. There is more to choosing a school. Look at the university's website, areas of research, and do your best to determine what student life is like. Some students will thrive in environments where others won't. Schools of computer science usually have visitation weekends, and those usually have a lot of influence over potential students. They give applicants the opportunity to see students' relationships with faculty, learning conditions, and get a feel for the environment."
Most education enrollment officials agree that there is no substitute for visiting a school you may attend. Learning about the school's amenities and culture first-hand is the best way a computer student can make their best choice.
"The most important thing to do is visit the school and find out for yourself what it's like-you can read volumes about the Grand Canyon, but to fully understand how amazing it is, you have to go," said Martin.