How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

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Our counselors answered:

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Peter Brass
Director of Student Services & University Advisor St. John's Ravenscourt School

Rankings offer little to ensure the best college "fit"...

Ranking can be somewhat helpful in narrowing down a lengthy list of prospective colleges for active consideration by a student. Otherwise, they serve little useful purpose. Rankings are only as good as the criteria and data used to produce them and seldom are the criteria used actually very meaningful to the individual applicant. This is because the broadly based criteria necessary to the ranking process (acceptance rates, retention statistics, long term graduation rates, etc.) can't speak to the best "fit" between the individual applicant and that "right" college. Choosing the right "fit' is a very individualized process; it is a quest by the student for self-awareness and the utilization of that awareness in aligning individual talents, interests and personality with the best colleges for that person.

Rafael Figueroa
Director, College Guidance Albuquerque Academy

Use with caution!...

Rankings are a good source of information. I would never buy an appliance without checking consumer ratings. Appliances get put through rigorous testing before they are rated by consumer magazines, but that isn’t true of colleges. Most college rankings get information directly from the colleges. In US News and World Report the data is plugged into a formula that is completely made up. It has nothing to do with what YOU will find important in a college. So use the DATA that is published for your own comparison of things like graduation and retention rates. But IGNORE the numerical rankings.

Robin Groelle

Rankings are only helpful if they are tailored to you...

There are many resources to help students find the right colleges for them.  Starting out by visiting a few campuses in different settings will help to clarify what feels right.  Giving thought to your learning style, social character, intellectual interests and talents are other criteria that will pave the way toward finding the right college fit.  Finding college rankings for these criteria can be very helpful.  Two of my favorites are The College Finder by Steven Antonoff and The Rugg’s Recommendations by Frederick Rugg.  The US News rankings are of little help, however the articles and commentary are!

Scott Hamilton
Founder Future Stars College Counseling Center

Students need to understand the factors influencing a college's rank...

One of the major components in US News and World Report's annual ranking is peer ratings, in which college administrators are asked to rate other colleges. Do high schools poll students for their opinions when determining class rank? Of course not, because this would be based on personal perspective and incomplete information. Understandably, an institution's effectiveness cannot be expressed through empirical data alone. But this only serves to underscore the necessity for prospective students to ask questions of a college that will lead them to discovering the best match based on individual needs and desired outcomes.

Stacey Kostell
Director of Undergraduate Admissions University of Illinois

Rankings don’t provide holistic reviews of universities...

Rankings can be helpful tools for evaluating colleges at a very quick glance, but can be a misleading measure if you look no further. Rankings also offer a general idea of a university’s reputation. However, talking with professionals can provide more meaningful insight into how highly regarded a degree from a certain university is after graduation. What rankings don’t measure is student life activity, such as amount and involvement in organizations and events. Nor can they share how well the school fits a particular student. The best way to determine if you picture yourself on a campus is to visit.

Steve Thomas
Director of Admissions Colby College

You can use college rankings, but don't get lazy!...

College rankings are not vital in choosing the college you decide to attend.  They usually comprise an interesting list of very good schools, but choosing between them should be an exercise each student undertakes regardless of rank.  Be aware of each list's methodology for compiling the list and keep in mind that college rankings should not be used to shorten the exercise of finding the right fit for each student.  There is no one school that is #1 for everyone.  Dig deeper.  Always.

Steven Graff
Sr. Higher Education Professional The College Board

Rankings are generally unimportant to your choice of colleges...

The simplistic and subjective nature of college rankings make them only peripherally helpful and generally unimportant to choosing a college. Because of the wide variety of colleges and universities, as well as the differences between students, any ordering of institutions cannot address the many important elements critical to a good fit for you – e.g. your academic interests, the campus culture, student body compatibility, etc. If you must consult rankings, pay attention to things like attention to teaching and the qualities of the institution’s graduates, rather than those that focus on the students they admit.

Susie Watts
College Consultant College Direction

Look for the Fit, Not at the Rank...

I suggest students put rankings at the bottom of their list and concentrate on schools that are a good fit for them. Rankings just add to the hype surrounding college admissions and the information you get is not always relevant to choosing a college. I don’t look at rankings except to check the four-year graduation rates at different schools. Far more important than rankings, students should do some self-reflection and write down a list of qualities they consider important in a college experience. The schools they choose should have as many of these qualities as possible.

Whitney Bruce
Independent College Counselor

Rankings provide context for considering unfamiliar colleges...

When discussing college options with families, I sometimes use rankings as a conversation starter for colleges which might be unfamiliar to the student or parent.   If a college ranked #33 on one list is well known to a particular student,  then my suggestion of the college ranked #29 or #36 has a little bit more context and legitimacy.  I don't encourage families to place weight in specific numeric rankings, but to use rankings as an opportunity for research and discovery of other college options. 

Bob Tillman
Director of College Placement Creighton Preparatory School

College Rankings offer limited information...

If someone is consulting college rankings it is important to know what the rankings are based on. For instance US News and World Report rankings provide a person with a list of schools that have a strong academic reputation, have good graduation and retention rates, are selective in admission of students, and have good salaries for their faculty and smaller lasses. Those rankings do not tell you about student satisfaction with teaching, the campus living environment, percentage of students admitted to graduate school, or friendliness of students. Some important factors to consider that often are overlooked by students and might not be included in the rankings are the core course requirements at different schools, quality of the teachers encountered in the first two years of college, ability in enroll as a freshman in my desired major, guarantee of on-campus housing beyond freshman or sophomore year, the presence of an Honor Code on the campus, and the extent of study-abroad options. The rankings can provide a prospective student with some limited information, but there is so much other information a student needs to learn to determine if a school is a good fit for them.