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Should You Care About College Rankings?

High school students compare college rankings

College rankings are often the first exposure that many students have to the concept of a “college list.” It’s easy to become familiar with a few “name brand” schools after seeing them at the top of a list, but what does that number actually mean? And should college rankings play a part in your college list research?

As a general rule, students should not base their college choices on a rankings list. But, if a school is near or at the top of a college rankings list it must be a great college, right? Sure, it might be a good institution, but is it the best-fit school for you?

Ranking Lists Don’t Count “Fit”

It’s impossible for a rankings list to take into account “fit” because it differs for everyone! For many students, a highly ranked school can seem prestigious. Or they assume because it’s highly ranked it’s the best education out there for them. What students forget is that while a school might be number one on a list, it might not necessarily be a good fit for them. This is the most important argument against considering rankings when building college lists. Students need to think about how schools stack up against their own personal needs and goals. Beyond that, lists are not absolute, and, as we will demonstrate below, can be very volatile and change dramatically from year to year.

Not All Lists Are Created Equal

There are a number of college rankings lists out there, and they each use their own methodology to determine how to rank institutions. Many students and parents will see how a school falls on a certain place on a list, but they rarely look deeper to see how that school got there — which is a big missed opportunity to do some in-depth research! Let’s take a look at some of the most popular college rankings lists and what they consider when evaluating colleges.

  U.S. News Forbes Money WSJ
SAT/ACT Scores X X
Yield X
Selectivity X
Graduation Rate X X X X
Job Placement/Salary X X X
Endowments/Financial Aid X X X
Student Assessments X
Student Loan Debt X X X X

Now, this is a very surface-level look at what these lists’ methodologies include. Each publication presents a much more in-depth look at how they weigh these certain factors and how they come together to give the ranking, but this chart does a good job of showing you what you need to know and that is that these lists are not held to any universal standard. They each have their own way of doing things and methodologies can change year-over-year — like how U.S. News assesses test scores — but this is important to note when evaluating what exactly you can learn from the information used to calculate rankings, rather than relying just on the ranking itself.

College Rankings Can Vary

So not every ranking methodology takes into account all the same factors, but being the “best” should transcend multiple lists, right? Not exactly. In fact, it’s often the opposite. A school might be in the top 5 of one list, and not even crack the top 20 of another — even in the same year! Here’s one great example: In 2022, Money made a surprising pick for the #5 spot on their college rankings list — Virginia Military Institute. Many would expect one of the usual suspects — maybe an Ivy or Stanford — in this spot, but instead, it was a state-supported military college in Virginia. So how did it do on the other lists?


Virginia Military Institute
Rankings List Rank
Money 5
US News 70 – Liberal Arts
Forbes 381
WSJ 158

While it ranked #5 out of all universities on Money’s list, it didn’t even crack the top 300 on Forbes‘ or the top 100 on the WSJ’s lists. It didn’t make the cut for the national universities list for U.S. News, but it did tie for 70 with Wofford College for national liberal arts colleges. This isn’t an isolated incident, either. This has happened to other schools like the University of Chicago, Duke University, and others, where in one year their place on one list differed by 10, 20, or even 30 spots from their place on another.

Even from year to year, one school’s spot on one list can change dramatically. Let’s look at Claremont McKenna College on Forbes’ America’s Top Colleges list.

Claremont McKenna College
Year Rank
2017 11
2016 28
2015 18

That’s a pretty big drop from 2015 to 2016, then an improvement of 17 spots just one year later. While a slight change in position, maybe one or two spots, can be attributed to changes in methodology, how much can you rely on a list if it rapidly promotes then demotes single institutions over a few years? Could they have really changed that much over such a short period of time to warrant such volatile rankings?

What You Should Pay Attention To

With such dramatic changes in rankings and varying methodologies, you should just ignore rankings altogether, right? Not necessarily! While the actual spot on the list doesn’t do much to illuminate whether or not that college is a good fit for you, the actual data that these publications collect is valuable. Instead of evaluating the rankings itself, evaluate what went into it! Use rankings to supplement your college list research to help you learn more about:

  • ROI: Things like financial aid awards, graduation rates (consider Harvard’s graduation rate, for example), post-graduate job placement rates, salaries, and more.
  • Student body: SAT/ACT scores, average GPA, and other “hard factors.”
  • Selectivity: Admit rates, yield rates, transfer rates, and more.
  • Atmosphere: Some rankings lists will use student or peer (i.e., other professors and people in higher education) surveys as part of the rankings calculation. What do students have to say about the schools in surveys? What do other professors and academics have to say about the educational opportunities there in their evaluations?
  • Miscellaneous: Average class size, number of research papers published every year, the average time it takes to graduate, and any other information that is important to you.

It can be tempting to base your college choices off of how they stack up to other institutions on a college rankings list, but it wouldn’t do much to help you determine whether a school is a good fit or not — which can have a huge impact on your college admissions process. Instead of being lured by an impressive ranking, get excited about what’s behind the number. Learn everything you can about that school’s stats, atmosphere, educational opportunities, and more with the help of some of the information used in rankings lists.

At IvyWise we work with students to help them unmask the college admissions process — including whether or not rankings are worth considering when deciding where to apply. No matter where you are in the admissions process, we can help you reach your personal and academic goals. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services.

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