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Should You Use Rankings to Choose a College?

Suzanne Shaffer

Every year the college ranking lists roll out: U.S. News Best Colleges, Forbes America’s Top Colleges, Princeton Review’s The Best 387 Colleges and more.

And every year, high school students and their families use these lists to create a list of dream colleges.

The colleges and universities at the top of these lists rarely change and always include the Ivies. But does this mean these are indeed the best colleges? Not necessarily.

Parents and students should understand how the rankings work and take time to make their own evaluations of the colleges that interest them. The lists have some value and can be used as a jumping off point, but putting too much emphasis on rankings may mean your student misses out on their best fit college.

What Are College Rankings?

College rankings are created for the sole purpose of helping college-bound students in their search for the best colleges. Most of these lists rank schools and academic programs within specific categories, like best liberal arts colleges, best online colleges, best business degrees, and even colleges with the most politically active students.

College rankings can serve as a simple and quick method to find a college or university that meets your student’s search goals.

How Do Rankings Work?

Most college ranking lists use a combination of statistics and opinions based on survey responses.

Here are some of the statistics that influence the rankings:

  • First-year student retention rate: The percentage of students who return for a second year, indicating satisfaction with their choice and that the college is providing the necessary support.
  • Graduation rate (for students both with and without Pell Grants): The percentage of students who graduate within six years, indicating the college is providing a valued education and nurturing its students.
  • Class size: The idea is that smaller classes mean more personalized instruction.
  • Faculty salary: Schools that pay their faculty well will attract the best professors.
  • Student-to-faculty ratio: A low ratio means more attention and greater opportunities to create relationships with professors.
  • Standardized test scores: The idea that higher scores mean greater selectivity and attract academically qualified students. (With the trend towards test-optional and test-blind admissions, this metric may become less meaningful.)
  • Percentage of high school graduates in top 10 and 25 percent: The idea that colleges with these students require a higher standard of academic excellence.
  • Acceptance rate: A small percentage of accepted students indicates that those who are admitted are the most valued students.
  • Average spending per student: The idea that spending large amounts on academics correlates with providing a quality education.
  • Alumni giving: Seen as a measure of satisfaction with their college experience and how the institution prepared them for post-graduation life and career.
  • Financial aid: Some lists measure the average amount of aid awarded; others measure the percentage of need met.
  • Alumni salaries: High salaries of graduates can indicate a valuable education.

These opinions gathered from college professionals and students also influence the rankings:

  • Academics: This is the college's academic reputation; i.e., how it is assessed by top academics and administrators at other colleges as well as high school counselors.
  • Quality of life: A measure of overall student satisfaction with the campus experience (safety, the comfort residence halls, dining center food, friendliness of the student body, etc.).

The Pros of Using Rankings

Here are four good ways college rankings can be helpful as your student creates their own college list.

  1. Use the lists to discover colleges. If your student is looking for a liberal arts college, a college with strong political activism, a college with a superior business program, or other specific program these rankings can be beneficial.
  2. Collect data to compare schools. If your student is considering a few different colleges, they can refer to the rankings list to compare statistics and view each college’s rank to help narrow down the list.
  3. Get insight into the reputation of the college. Graduate schools and employers often consider reputations when making hiring decisions.
  4. Get a picture of a qualified applicant. This will help your student determine what type of applicant the college deems valuable, making them competitive for admission.

The Cons of Using Rankings

Although college rankings can be helpful when comparing colleges, there are reasons to tread lightly when using these lists to choose a college.

A few years ago, Frank Bruni, a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, wrote a piece he called "Why College Rankings Are a Joke."

According to Bruni, "The rankings nourish the myth that the richest, most selective colleges have some corner on superior education; don't adequately recognize public institutions that prioritize access and affordability; and do insufficient justice to the particular virtues of individual campuses."

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, points out the cheating that goes on when colleges send incorrect, inaccurate and inflated data to the list makers.

Some other things to consider:

  • Rankings don’t measure what sort of job a college or university is doing to graduate its students. No list even attempts to measure the education students receive or the quality of that education.
  • Rankings encourage colleges to favor the rich. Elite schools often boast that they provide financial aid to all admitted students who need it, but most of these institutions offer admission to a shamefully low percentage of needy students.
  • The rankings encourage admission tricks. Colleges increase rejection rates by recruiting students they have no intention of accepting.
  • Rankings encourage debt. The U.S. News list now includes a "graduate indebtedness rank" as well as statistics on the percentage of graduating students who borrowed and average federal indebtedness of the most recent graduating class. However, the reality is that the colleges at the top of the lists are expensive and middle-income students who aspire to these schools and are accepted are often forced to take out huge student loans. The prestige of the college often outweighs the cost in the minds of the student and their family.
  • Students can get too focused on the rankings instead of doing the work of figuring out which schools might be the best fit for them. A good school is one that fits your student academically, financially and socially, not necessarily one that is ranked in the top tier of colleges.

These rankings are based on a subjective collection of information from the colleges themselves. Colleges have been known to pad their data, cheat on the reporting, and shift the data in their favor to rank high on the list.

Should You Use Rankings When Choosing a College?

Rankings can be beneficial when starting your college list, but I always suggest that students and families use more than one source when comparing colleges and gathering data. Following are some additional sources I recommend:

Custom College Rankings

Custom College Rankings helps you view all the college statistics on a spreadsheet and change the criteria of the spreadsheet as you view it. There are over 2,900 colleges and universities with statistics for each gathered from the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

ETC College Rankings Index

The ETC College Rankings Index measures the improvement in employability and earnings that a particular college brings to its graduates, relative to students at other similar colleges. It focuses on the value-added by going to a particular college and pursuing a specific area of study.

College Factual

Unlike other college ranking systems, College Factual serves as a decision-making hub throughout the entire college search process, sharing outcomes-based data such as average student loan debt per student and default rates; how well colleges retain and graduate students; graduates’ starting salaries and earning potential; and return on investment (ROI) based on cost of a degree.


GradReports ranks schools by Salary Score, a proprietary rating system based on how much alumni earn at each school compared to alumni from the same programs across all institutions. This methodology allows students to find schools whose alumni earn high salaries in their field, regardless of what they study. Their rankings are based on graduate salary data provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

In addition to these sites, you can use College Navigator (managed by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education) and College Data to gather more information.

Never rely solely on one set of rankings. Use the comparison tools to make a wise college choice. The best college is the college that is the best fit for your student, not a number on a college ranking list.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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