How to Use College Rankings?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

College Rankings

Rise From the Ranks

Yesterday it was revealed that Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia is the latest well-known, selective college to have misreported admissions data. Emory’s acknowledgment, which follows similar scandals involving Claremont McKenna College and the University of Illinois Law School, is further proof of the many flaws in college rankings lists.

This month, as publications release their 2012 college rankings, and rising seniors finalize the list of colleges to which they will apply, we thought it was an important time to revisit an article that we published here in September 2011, “What do College Rankings Mean?” (Note: Parts of this article have been updated to reflect 2012 ranking data).

Breaking Ranks

Among high school guidance counselors, college-bound teens and their parents, the annual college rankings are often a prevalent consideration in the college admissions process. Newsweek/The Daily Beast, U.S. News & World Report, the Princeton Review and Forbes are among the “best college” lists that students use to guide them in their college searches. What do these college rankings really mean and how much credence should be given to them when choosing a college?

Understanding the criteria and methodology used to develop the “best” lists is key, and these differ for each ranking organization, and can change within an organization from year to year. Even if a school moves up or down in a list from year to year, it doesn’t mean that the school itself is significantly better or worse than it was the year before.

When compiling their rankings, U.S. News & World Report considers selectivity, alumni giving, and the opinions of high school guidance counselors, while Forbes emphasizes post-graduate success, student satisfaction, and student debt. The rankings also differ in the manner in which they are reported. Some organizations report rankings for best schools overall while others are categorized by geography, and still others are segmented by areas of study or even by student amenities.

The Princeton Review ranks colleges in 62 different categories from the academic (“professors get high marks”) to the arcane (“Future Rotarians and Daughters of the American Revolution”). This year, Newsweek and the Daily Beast have ranked their top 25 picks in several different categories from “most stressful” to “most affordable.”

Still other lesser-known publications get in on the rankings too. Washington Monthly for instance rates schools on their contribution to the public good in the categories of Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research, and Service. That said, college rankings can vary drastically depending on the source and their ranking method. For example, in 2011:

  • On US News & World Report’s list of national universities, Yale University is #3, while on Forbes Best Undergraduate Institutions Yale is #14.

  • On Washington Monthly’s National University Rankings, none of the first five schools appear higher than 20 on US News & World Report’s list.

  • The University of California, Berkeley comes in at 70 on Forbes, 21 on US News, and 3 on Washington Monthly’s lists.

It is important to keep in mind that all college rankings are subjective. There are several aspects of a school that are not evaluated in a ranking, but that may be very important to your student or family, including the research opportunities available to students, how much time faculty members spend advising students outside the classroom, how friendly or supportive other students are, whether the school contributes to students’ personal development, or the effectiveness of the school’s career services. This type of information is more reflective of the student experience at a particular school than a ranking.

Only personal experience can determine if a school will be a good fit.  At IvyWise, we recommend that students don’t look at where their favorite college ranks on a list but rather, at the criteria used to rank the schools. Create your own rankings by choosing the factors that are most important to you and then looking at schools using those factors as a measure to create your own personal “best colleges” list.

The expert counselors at IvyWise have developed a worksheet to help you create your own college rankings. Download the worksheet!

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