How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

College Search

Our counselors answered:

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Nancy Milne
Owner Milne Collegiate Consulting

College Rankings

Thanks to the infamous Newsweek, Forbes, etc. magazine rankings, print media isn't obsolete yet! The methodology of these reports remains suspect and thus should be taken with a grain of salt. A much better gauge of a college can be determined by comparing the Common Data Set, available on every school's website. What is the freshman retention rate, what percentage of students graduate in 4 years, how engaged are the students (see National Survey on Student Engagement), what is the average loan debt of graduates. These are more useful points of discussion than what one college president thinks of another college or yield rate comparisons. Try not to be swayed by all the marketing bling and focus on what really matters: the quality of the education for the price.

Nicholas Umphrey

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

I find them interesting and informative, but there is a degree of subjectivity to any ranking. Why? Because the rankings change each year when colleges have limited change. I believe that any college choice should be because you as an individual like it. If you are going because of its rank, then I don't think it is the right reason.

Helen Cella

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

It's important when applying to graduate school

Annie Reznik
Counselor/CEO College Guidance Coach

Focus on Your Rankings, Not Someone Else's

The other day I asked a student, "What is the best college in the country?" Predictably, she responded, "Harvard." We opened the Princeton Review's "The Best 376 Colleges," and learned that for the "Professors Interesting" rating, Harvard earned a lowly 71. The student and I both knew that "interesting, engaging professors" was high on her list of desired characteristics in a future academic home. For her, Harvard University is not the most highly ranked college, despite earning a top ranking from various publications. Identify your 5 most important characteristics and rank colleges for yourself. Don't rely on rankings that may not include factors of importance to you.

Tam Warner Minton
Consultant College Adventures

College Rankings

How important are they? Not very. Some of the best colleges in America are not even ranked because they do not require SAT or ACT. Some colleges and universities "embellish" their numbers a bit, or they count administrative employees in their teacher/student ratio, or they do not report scores from students who clear the waitlist, athletic recruits, and legacy students. Why? Because those scores are usually weaker. I guarantee you there are colleges you have never heard of that are absolutely awesome. Take a look at rankings, but don't take them as gospel. My opinion on rankings:

Patricia Krahnke
President/Partner Global College Search Associates, LLC

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Short Answer: It’s all smoke and mirrors. You gotta dig deeper to get to what’s real. Detailed Answer: In my first days as an Assistant Director of Admissions at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I was responsible for collecting and calculating much of the data that was submitted to the federal government (via IPEDS) and the various rankings publications, such as U.S. News and World Report, Peterson’s, etc. It was so very clear to all of us involved in this process of data collection and analysis how easily this information could be manipulated by an institution to improve its placement on the rankings lists. We were quite sure that other institutions were manipulating this data in this way, and it’s beginning to come out that in certain cases, this is exactly what has been happening. (Google “Iona College Data Falsified.”) How might that work? Here ya go: As an institution, in the data you submit to the rankings publications (and the federal government, via IPEDS) do you want your SAT scores to appear higher? Lop off the SAT scores of your typically underperforming groups – athletes, first-generation/low-income, legacy, etc. – and you present much higher median and average SAT scores. (That’s why admissions counselors snicker when you ask them “What’s your average SAT.” There’s no such thing as an average SAT. You want to be taken seriously by an admissions professional? Don’t ask that question. Want to increase the appearance of selectivity in the rankings (the idea that the institution is harder to get into than others)? That’s simple: Make the application easy. Remove or reduce the essay component; accept the Common App; reduce or remove the application fee; send out pre-completed application forms to “top students” (don’t be flattered if you receive one of these); don’t require letters of recommendation; market to tons of inadmissible students, raise their hopes, then deny them. The latter is one of the tactics the Ivies use – that’s one of the ways they maintain their reputation as elite institutions. Actually, most institutions use some or all of these strategies. When I was Dean of Admissions at one of the Vermont State Colleges, this conversation was held every year, driven by a panicky president: How can we increase the numbers of applications? (In fact, this conversation happens in almost every single admissions office in the world.) The president of the college wanted the application to be as simple as possible, with no letters of recommendation, no essay, no fee, in short, nothing to slow down the application from being submitted and reviewed, because the president wanted the numbers higher. This is the type of manipulative behavior that drives rankings. Here's a story that stems directly from that situation: We received a complaint one day from an applicant. This student had received a phone call from one of the counselors congratulating that student on being admitted, and the student (a very, very smart student) challenged that counselor by saying, “How can your college be any good if you received my application online yesterday and you are already calling me to tell me I have been accepted?” Bingo. The fact is that the college had several outstanding faculty members and students that deserved to be part of a process that was more conscientious than the president of the college was capable of. Those are just a couple of examples. There are many others. Why this type of anxiety and manipulation? The institution’s trustees and Board of Governors and alumni want their institution to be as high in the rankings as possible because the foundation can leverage that information to attract donations from alumni and corporations and because their Office of Admissions can use it in their marketing publications to set them apart from other institutions. It’s a funny thing that happens: If an institution ranks high on a list, they suddenly think rankings are a great idea (while saying privately that they know it’s all bunk.) If they rank low on a list, they agree that the rankings are nonsense. This is why so many colleges and universities have stopped submitting their information to the rankings publications, and why you see U.S. News and World Report fumbling around in the news trying to push their agenda and changing their research methodology. They are being challenged as to the validity of their data and the use of their data. U.S News (and other similar publications) makes a ton of money off of prospective students and their families, just like you. It’s a corporation. They are manipulating you to create anxiety and make money based on your fear of not being at the “best” college. They are in silent collusion with colleges and universities that buy into the rankings) because they rank high enough to be able to leverage that power), cheering you on when they overhear you at high school events bragging about the highly ranked institution to which you are applying. It’s a competition based on nothing meaningful. So how do you get real, unadulterated data? The federal government via IPEDS – the College Navigator tool. But, oops! Even they don’t have it (again, Google Iona College Data Falsified.) Although they do try hard. To be honest, it’s only a handful of people in that office. How do I know? I’ve met them. Great people trying hard to be a great watchdog over institutions both massive and small whose inner workings and conversations they can’t see and hear. So if you ask me, a family that talks about rankings in their college search is not doing their search right. Do your own homework, beginning with getting to the heart of needs and wants and hopes and dreams and realities. There are great colleges, faculty, and outcomes everywhere. You’re not going to find that information in a rankings guide. Like I said, you gotta dig deeper to get to what’s real.

王文君 June Scortino
President IVY Counselors Network

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

I personally do not believe college rankings and I suggest you to guide yourself by asking the right questions that are important to you.

James Lundgren
Partner College Planning Solutions

Who ranked my college, and why?

As important as considering rankings are who did them and why. Probably the most well-known college ranking program is the US News and World Report's Annual College Ranking edition. It is their best selling issue year after year, yet not well-respected in academia. So, consider the source with these purported "expert" college rankings. Is it a popularity contest, a ranking by cost, or perhaps something as pertinent as how well they graduate and place their students in employment? The best possible "ranker" is you! Use your geographic parameters (states), your campus size preference (3,000 or 30,000), whether you are open to the possibility of a private college being as affordable and perhaps more effective than a public one in preparing you for your career, and the most important factor is how well you will "fit". Finding a good "fit" is accomplished by using all of your search criteria and finding colleges which satisfy all of your needs. Some very good college search tools may be found at College Board and Barron's Guide to American Colleges is in its 29th year of serving college prospects.

Trevor Creeden
Director of College and Career Counseling Delaware County Christian School

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

I am going to say to take rankings with a grain of salt. It also depends on the colleges you are applying to. A lot of these rankings have to do with national and regional reputation, percentages, how many professors do research, how long the school as been around, etc. There are so many good colleges out there that have professors with great experience and are experts in their field. Colleges like to see their name in the rankings but it will never define them as a school. You have to see the school for yourself. It also depends on the major you may want to pursue because certain colleges have better programs in certain majors but that may not show up in any rankings.

Tim Haley

College Rankings

College rankings are unimportant. They are like college football and basketball rankings. They mean nothing and are based on completely subjective criteria. What is the difference between number 1 and number 20? Take 2 students from the same college, how do you rank a school when one student had a great experience and the other had a lukewarm one.