Mapping out your design education aspirations and options? Design school rankings can play a key role in the fact-finding process. But even the creators of ‘top schools' lists caution students to use restraint when considering a school's by-the-list ranking in overall design school selection criteria.
“Students and their parents really look at these lists. I don't know why the rankings carry so much weight, but they do. If I were a prospective student or parent, I certainly would consider what the surveys say, but it would be only be the beginning of the search to know which schools to look into more closely,” says Katherine Bennett, professor of product design at the consistently top-ranked Art Center College of Design and education board vice president for the Industrial Designers Society of America (ISDA).
Typical ‘best school' rankings are published in traditional media such as magazines along with supporting articles. DesignIntelligence, is a design professional journal known for its annual America's Best Architecture & Design Schools rankings, now in its 8th year. BusinessWeek unveiled “D-Schools; The Global List” in October 2006 as part of special report dedicated to Top Innovation & Design Schools. U.S. News & World Report annually publishes “America's Best Colleges” rankings offering top national and state schools, as well as design and art program rankings. And, of course, lighthearted rankings from The Princeton Review's 2007 "Best 361 Colleges” include academics as well as the notorious “Best Party Schools” list.
Abbreviated versions of the original lists and articles are available online. Full and expanded rankings from previously printed materials with additional supporting design education guidance materials are available at a “non- prohibitive” cost compared to pending education expenditures. “Students are going to spend a large amount of money on school. This is their future they are investing in,” Bennett says. “Once you've passed into the higher reaches of educational excellence at the top schools, the decision is based on what the student needs. Each school provides a unique experience; the rankings can reveal some of the specialty areas that some schools do very well in.
Rankings also further help ensure quality educational opportunities, benchmark successes and most importantly, hold institutions accountable to both students and the students' future employers, says James Cramer, editor of DesignIntelligence, chairman of Greenway Group management consultancy and former chief executive of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
“We love rankings. That's because we believe in a meritocracy, and we believe in accountability. Who are the schools accountable to? They are accountable to the students and they are accountable to the people hiring the students,” Cramer says.
Evaluation of the lists should include consideration of the methodology, the credentials of the schools and the supporting information, as well a way to define your own particular needs as a student. “We do the rankings because we care about quality education, but the rankings do not tell the whole story; we warn students that rankings are imperfect,” says Cramer.
Art Center College of Design is the No. 1 ranked Industrial Design School for both undergraduate and graduate school in the DesignIntelligence 2007 America's Best Architecture & Design Schools rankings Industrial Design, Interior Design, Architecture and Landscape Architecture schools rankings are each part of the report (a new report is due to be released in November 2006). The report also offers regional rankings, a directory of accredited design programs in the United States and exclusive historical design program rankings.
The DesignIntelligence report was originally privately circulated and much talked about in the profession. The rankings continue to help design field hiring managers determine which schools excel at preparing students for professional practice, and input from design and built environment professional hiring authorities remains the primary basis for rankings research.
The Oct. 6, 2006 debut of the BusinessWeek “D-Schools; The Global List” highlights an alphabetical list of 60 top global design schools that effectively combine design, business, engineering and social sciences. “It's not so much a ranking, as a list of top schools listed alphabetically. They have relieved themselves of the nonsensical pressure of trying to rank apples and oranges,” Bennett says.
The BusinessWeek design expert advisory panel included Bennett and 23 other designers, design educators, innovation consultants and recruiters. The panel assisted the magazine's editorial staff in development of the list of design schools that focus on business-savvy design thinking and strategy. The methodology also considered the strengths of individual programs. As a result, the report offers details on schools with a “specific, business-savvy view of how they view design,” Bennett says.
Design students may wish to cross-reference design colleges of interest with those ranked on the U.S. News & World Report's annually published “America's Best Colleges” rankings of top national, state, public and private universities – Princeton heads the national list. Design students can also find specialized information on the U.S. News list of unranked specialty art schools (America's Best Colleges 2007 - Unranked Specialty Schools: Arts). More than 40 are listed alphabetically, along with comparative data such as class size, freshman retention and graduation rates; since the sample is small, specialty schools are not ranked. The U.S. News America's Best Colleges 2007 - Fine Arts Specialties: Industrial Design rankings offer peer institution-based rankings, and once again list Art Center College of Design as the top school. The rankings are based on a survey of art and design deans and department chairs at 213 individual fine arts programs. Ranking schools received the most nominations for excellence in a given specialty.
The main U.S. News ‘best' lists rank national, liberal arts, public and private schools with a wide range of undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees Rankings are based primarily on school-supplied data for 15 different criteria including: peer assessment scores; average freshman retention rate; actual graduation rate (‘05); faculty resources rank; % of classes w/50 or more ('05); % of classes w/fewer than 20 ('05); % full time faculty ('05); Student/ faculty ratio ('05); SAT/ACT 25th-75th percentile ('05); freshmen in top 10% of high school class; acceptance rate ('05); alumni giving; and financial resources. U.S. News also ranks schools in sub lists including Best Values (schools with above-average academics that cost less than average when need-based grants are factored in); economic diversity; and campus ethnic diversity.
A unique peer-based student survey provides both academic and social perspective to the process. The Princeton Review's 2007 "Best 361 Colleges” is an alphabetical list of 361 top schools; each school is rated in areas including Admissions Selectivity, Fire Safety Rating, Quality of Life, Academic and Financial Aid. The list is compiled from school-supported data and input from more than 115,000 college students. The Princeton Review report is perhaps better known for its 62 different rankings - including its notorious “Best Party Schools” list - in eight different categories: Academics, Demographics, Parties, School Type, Politics, Quality of Life, Extracurriculars and Social. It's not all about the social life; in addition to sorting capability by school and major, the report includes admissions criteria, deadlines, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other information.
Look beyond the top three design schools on any list. Not only are new or small schools at a disadvantage in rankings, but also a school not in the Top 15 might be best for a certain student, Cramer says, citing factors like location, price, facilities and chemistry with faculty as what makes a school the "best" for a particular student. “Quality matters; the education is an investment, and therefore the decision as to what school to go to is one of the biggest decisions in a student's life. But the student is in the driver's seat, because the school is there to serve students and their future careers. The student should be an informed consumer, should ask the tough questions and should have very high expectations for the quality of their own education.”
By cross-referencing the rankings, an Ohio resident looking for top in-state design programs would discover the programs at Ohio State University, Columbus College of Art and the University of Cincinnati are prominently ranked. Further research may reveal a particular school's strengths in industrial design specialties, outstanding studio facilities or rigorous design internship programs, Bennett says. “If you are interested in the top schools, they are always on top of the lists, and they are very good schools. Quite often, the interesting aspects about many colleges don't show up on surveys, and it is the individual features at each institution that actually form the educational experience,” Bennett says.
Also take time to interpret the data. For instance, the level of alumni giving listed in U.S. News can be a measure of a school's endowments and funding for scholarships, grants, facilities, curriculum development and faculty salaries. But design students should be aware that schools with high levels of alumni giving have one thing in common: football. “Ranking alumni giving is always going to favor schools with football teams, and that's not going to help you with a private school of art or a design college,” Bennett says.
An advocate of the DesignIntelligence hiring authority methodology, Bennett believes a pragmatic approach to addressing career-readiness questions is sensible. “Many students and parents today are frankly interested in what kind of work they are going to be prepared for upon graduation,” Bennett says. “With the student loan situation, everybody cares about a job after school these days.”
Good schools can be found in every region and in every type, including private non-profit, private-for-profit and state institution categories, Cramer says. “Students should assess where they'd like to go to school, as in what part of the country. And then, they should look at their budgets,” Cramer says, noting the DesignIntelligence rankings include a budget-conscious: a $-sign system that rates schools as $, $$ or $$$, with the most expensive schools rated $$$. U.S. News follows a similar train of thought with its "Best Values" school rankings.
“Some schools are very well endowed, so if you are really talented student, don't just exclude those most expensive schools, you may just get a scholarship there. It may be possible to go to one of the most expensive schools for the least amount of money,” Cramer says.
Once you have a short list, it's important to know that the culture of one school may fit your aptitude better than another. Mainstream rankings offer information that helps students analyze the campus environment and culture beyond the design school, Cramer says. “Then take your own core values as a student, and imagine yourself on that campus environment,” he says.
Field trips and fact-finding missions are definitely in order, including school visits and quizzing of participants at student and professional design events. “More than anything, prospective design students need to visit the schools and get a good sense of what the educational experience is like: what is the culture of the school, what is your education going to be like to be there? The surveys are not going to give you that,” Bennett says.
“There's a different culture in each one of these schools. Each is excellent in a different way, for a different reason. You've got to figure out the difference, do your homework about the schools that are under consideration and decide which is going to provide what you need.”
The emphasis of a design school program approach – blue sky, imaginative design or ‘real world' design – should also be researched and revealed in a school visit, Bennett notes. “The field needs both visionaries and tacticians. Only prospective students would know whether they are more down to earth and want to do things that actually go out into the market and get made, or if they want dream big dreams. There are schools that cater to one or the other, and there are schools that prepare you for both. The rankings might not tell you that.”