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Making Sense of College Rankings (Don't Believe Everything your read)

college rankings
Making Sense of College Rankings (Don't Believe Everything your read)

Although this article is directed at students just beginning their college search, it will also be beneficial 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 college rankings lists. 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 considerable increases in college applications 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 alums. 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 its 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.

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 "America's Best Colleges" list based on 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 a 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 alums giving. Other ranking lists also review the faculty quality, the research volume, 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, to achieve your goals. So 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, and 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 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, and use the rankings 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 matters to you.