Updated: May 26, 2021
Although this article is directed to students just beginning their college search, it will also be useful to seniors in making their final choice of college to attend. This is especially true this year since so many applicants have been unable to make an in-person campus visit.
For many students and parents, one of their many early college research options is to go directly to those famous lists of college rankings. The assumption is that if a college is ‘ranked’ highly by this or that publication, it must therefore be a ‘good’ or even ‘great’ college. International families, especially, often turn to the ‘ratings’ because in many other countries the hierarchy of universities’ reputations is clearly defined and known, and families want their children to study only at renowned American institutions. This phenomenon has often accounted for huge increases in applications to colleges at the top of those rankings from students in Asia.
Colleges and universities create beautiful books that can be shared with donors, other (competing) universities, magazine publishers, and alumni. These ‘brag books’ highlight student achievements, research advancements, faculty superstars and new campus construction projects. The data is used to impress academic institutions and publishers who put together college rankings because, for a college, its reputation is everything. Higher education is intensely competitive and a university’s placement in the rankings is a huge force behind their many fiscal decisions, enrollment numbers and employment opportunities. When a college rises into the top 20-25 positions in the annual U.S. News and World Report, its application volume can and will increase by about 5%-10%. Even one simple step up the list can increase applications by about 1%. The clear correlation between national/global rankings and application volume is often reflected in colleges’ decisions on selectivity, standardized test scores and high school rank. Unfortunately, students are often the losers in this ‘game’, especially students of color and low-income applicants.
In order to make sense of this academic ‘race’, first understand how the rankings are created. In 1983, the U.S. News & World Report published its first list of “America’s Best Colleges” based upon college presidents’ responses to survey questions. This list has now become the most popular college ranking tool, developing into a far more sophisticated objective ranking, using complex methodology. So, what matters to colleges and how are the rankings created? Typically, they analyze the following: graduation and retention rates, academic reputation, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, and alumni giving. There are other ranking lists that also review the quality of the faculty, the volume of research, employer reputation, student/faculty ratio and international student/faculty ratio.
As an applicant, you must first know what matters to you during your college experience. For example, you may place great value on employment opportunities after graduation, but rankings rarely consider those numbers. You may also really want to focus on graduation rates and student debt, but don’t want or need to attend an expensive, albeit highly ranked institution, in order to achieve your goals. Dig deeper than simple rankings, compare them all and review methodologies.
You are choosing your new ‘home away from home’ and everything matters as you build your college list. Once it’s safe to do so, visit the campus in person, take a tour if possible, check course offerings, academic and social support opportunities, location and general ethos. Let rankings be your first college research stop but don’t ever allow it to be your last stop.
There is no harm in using the rankings to start your journey. The lists give you a great deal of data that you should carefully review in order to personalize your needs. Then you can start comparing apples with apples – in other words, you’ll learn that it’s not reasonable to compare the rankings of Yale University, currently ranked #3, with Eckerd College, currently ranked #140. Why? Because one is an outstanding national university and the other an excellent small liberal arts college. Does that mean Yale is better FOR YOU than Eckerd? No! Be clear on what you want, use the rankings as a way to learn more about options that fall within your personal and academic parameters - don’t simply focus on the beauty pageant lists but on what really matters to you.