How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

College Search

Our counselors answered:

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Katelyn Klapper
Founder College Options

Quantifiable rankings can be useful, but they aren’t everything...

Like any resource, rankings provide one way to assess good fit, but pay attention to what measurements are being used. Are they quantifiable factors or are they opinions? Factors like student retention and graduations rates, number of faculty with terminal degrees in their field, and dollars raised per student are all verifiable. Student, faculty, and “peer administrator” opinions are often uninformed or one-sided.  Statistics from career services only represent those who fill out graduation surveys and rarely represent the entire graduating class--so user beware. Rankings can be an interesting place to start a search, but they shouldn’t end it.

Lee Bierer
President College Admissions Strategies

Ranking on the rankings...

I am not a big believer in the college rankings. I think there are so many other more important factors that help determine the best college fit for a student. I tell students that performance is king. If they are worried about the prestige of their undergraduate college because they are considering graduate school admissions, they are better off being at the top of their class at a somewhat less selective school than running with the middle or the bottom of the pack at a more prestigious school.

Lynda McGee
College Counselor Downtown Magnets High School

College rankings are meant to be a guide, not a bible...

As more and more college put ads in magazines and on the internet, it can be confusing.Their viewbooks make them all sound so wonderful. Rankings can help you sort out which programs are considered the most selective and prestigious. However, are they always the right choice? And how do they choose who makes the top of the list? Many factors go into college rankings, including alumni donations and how other institutions preceive them. Take that into account when you start to think that school #1 must be much better than school #20. What the rankings can do is introduce you to great schools you may be unfamiliar with. So check out those rankings, but remember that you will find an excellent education up and down the list.

Marilyn Morrison
Founder Morrison Educational Consulting

Smart ways to make college rankings work for you!...

Whether it’s the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” survey of the greenest college campuses, Reform Judaism Magazine’s chart of the top 60 schools Jewish students choose, or Trojan’s annual report card of sexual health at America’s colleges, rankings can be a useful piece in your research.  Rankings can point you to colleges that might be good matches for you, but be sure to focus on the factors that are the most important to you, and always compare multiple sources of information.  Pay attention to the methodology used in compiling the rankings, and who has sponsored or contributed to the lists.

Marjorie Goode
Founder Start Early: College & Career Planning Service

Rankings can be a consideration in a search, not a dominating factor...

Many students miss “hidden gems” because too much emphasis is placed on rankings, rather than other criteria that can determine the academic quality of an institution. A college education is a major investment and students hope that the outcome will prepare them for a productive and profitable career. Some studies point out that rankings can be flawed due to its subjective evaluation, the decision of some institutions not to participate, and the impression that some colleges are annually “recycled,” due to their popularity, rather than merit. I prefer to use a college’s accreditation as a reputable distinction of academic excellence. They be can be accredited in many ways, but most notably with regional and professional recognition.

Mary Hill
Co-Director of College Counseling St. Paul Academy & Summit School

Deconstruct the rankings data, empower students to set priorities...

Rankings give students a shortcut instead of empowering them to think for themselves and choose colleges based on their own priorities. It’s natural to want a quick answer about “best colleges,” especially to make sense of the excess of public opinions and information on colleges. But rarely do students and parents understand the weight given to each data point in a ranking like the US News list. It would be a great service to deconstruct the rankings so students and parents could prioritize the data to create a custom ‘ranking’ that matches their search criteria.

Megan Dorsey
SAT Prep & College Advisor College Prep LLC

Rankings can do more harm than good...

Most families use rankings to determine how “good” schools are.  So colleges and universities are under pressure to elevate their numbers, focusing on statistics, not students.  Selecting a college is—or should be—a personalized process accounting for a student’s unique interests, talents, and personality. College rankings do contain useful data such as graduation rates and average scores, but a complex set of statistics cannot capture the human elements that draw a student to his or her “best-fit” college.  To use rankings effectively as part of the college selection process, families should educate themselves about the factors evaluated and the ranking formulas used.

Mitchell Lipton
Dean of Admissions & Records Registrar Cooper Union

Never use rankings as a stand alone guide...

Use them with caution. The ranking of a college must be viewed in greater context with information gathered from a variety of sources, i.e. school counselor, parent, college students, alumni, and faculty, etc. Web sites and guide books should also be utilized as part of a college search strategy. Students must ask themselves, "Does this college meet my academic and social needs?" If the answer is no, that should raise a big red flag. Don't place too much weight on a college's ranking. What if the list only ranks the top 25 in a given area? Would number 26 be that different? Spending four years at college is a big investment of time and energy. Make sure to keep an open mind. You deserve it.

Nitin Sawhney
Director of Tutoring Services Marks Education

Not very helpful, unless you can break down the data behind the rankings...

College rankings from publications such as U.S. News and World Report are popular among students and parents because they appear to tell you, in a simple snapshot, if one college is better than another.  But "better" means different things to each of us.  While smaller class sizes may be the most important factor to one student, another may want to attend an institution with a higher percent of faculty with PhDs.  If, as is likely, your priorities are different from those of the ranking publication, the ranking itself may be unhelpful and potentially misleading. To understand if rankings are helpful, it is important to see how they are calculated. Each system of rankings, including those of the U.S. News, assigns colleges scores on a variety of factors, from selectivity to alumni giving to the size of the endowment. It then assigns a relative weighting (level of importance) to each of these factors. The sum of the relative weightings times each score gives each college its rank. As you can probably see, these weightings may mean little to you. Do you care more about the quality of the faculty or more about the total endowment of the university? Is it more important to you to have a small student to teacher ratio, or to attend a college which is very selective? Because each of us is different, the overall ranking of a school has little to do with how you or I might rank it. Thus, a ranking looked at without perspective is meaningless. You may be better off if you can delve into the data behind the rankings to find how colleges rank on the metrics that really matter to you.

Patricia Young
Independent Counselor College Advising Services

Trust, but verify!...

College rankings are everywhere in the press, websites, and in book form.  It's hard to avoid them, but you need to do some digging on your own. Ranking systems use a different set of variable criteria to set themselves apart from other published rankings.  What criteria was used?  Research how the rankings were arrived at for the annual hit-parade of schools.  You may be surprised to learn that the information may or may not be totally accurate or have relevancy for you. Read the rankings, but that is just the beginning of the research that you must do to find the best match for you.