Student Life

College rankings — What they mean vs. what really matters

By Wendy Worrall Redal

We’ve all seen them — annual lists charting the nation’s “best” colleges and universities. U.S. News & World Report debuted the first-ever rankings of the country’s Top 50 colleges back in 1983 and is arguably the most influential.

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Others have followed suit, including Forbes, Princeton Review, Kiplinger, Money, Washington Monthly, even The Daily Beast.

Publications use admissions data (acceptance rate, test scores, average entering GPA), academics (class size, number of full-time faculty, percentage of faculty with a PhD), graduation and retention rates, and alumni giving when compiling their lists. Qualitative measures may also be included, such as peer reviews by administrators from other institutions.

As the number of rankings lists have grown, so have the means of measuring “quality.” Money evaluates the “best bang for your tuition buck,” assessing “educational quality, affordability, and alumni earnings.” Washington Monthly rates schools based on their contribution to the public good. And at The Daily Beast, while “future earnings, affordability and academics” count most, rankings also take into account diversity, athletics, nightlife, student activities, safety and campus food.

Not surprisingly, year in and year out, many lists give top billing to elite private schools, with the most coveted spots going to the venerable Ivies, highly esteemed liberal arts colleges, and of course Stanford, which boasts the nation’s most selective admissions, accepting just 5.7 percent of applicants in 2014.

But critics challenge the assumption that these hierarchies are truly meaningful. Several factors can skew rankings:

  • Too much weight is given to “reputation,” which perpetuates a system that keeps a handful of schools in the top spots
  • Some schools have provided false reports, such as inflated SAT scores, in an attempt to “game the system”
  • The Common App allows students to easily apply to more schools; in turn colleges court ever more applicants, causing “selectivity” ratings to spiral out of control

So, what good are the rankings?

There’s no question that students and parents look to these lists for a sense of a school’s worth. But what do the numbers really mean? Are they a worthy guide to a college’s merit? Opinions vary — but ultimately, the rankings might wisely be taken with a grain of salt as parents help students figure out which colleges are best for them.

As students and parents sift through volumes of material about multiple colleges, rankings can help sort and simplify complicated information.

They can provide useful comparative details such as the academic profile of the student body, faculty-to-student ratio, percentage of students receiving financial aid, how many students return after freshman year (a good indicator of student satisfaction), and other measures.

What can’t the rankings assess?

Many important aspects of the college experience aren’t easily quantified, such as commitment to teaching, an intentional living environment or the quality of student-faculty relationships. Such aspects of university life are best assessed through conversations, campus visits and other subjective means.

Students and parents must also be careful not to compare “apples to oranges” when looking at rankings. How, for instance, do you measure the quality of undergraduate teaching at a research university of 50,000 students who rely on large lecture classes versus a small college where intimate seminars foster discussion and exchange of ideas? How do you compare a liberal arts college to a polytechnic university, and which makes more sense based on your student’s major or career goals? How do you factor in differences in retention rates between students from wealthy families versus low-income families, noting that for some, a more economically diverse student body might be the more important strength?

Ultimately, what matters most is evaluating colleges in terms of the best fit for an individual student’s goals, interests and preferences — and choosing a school where that student is valued. And there will be a multitude of colleges to fill that bill. When too much emphasis is placed on rankings, students end up missing out on a whole host of excellent possibilities that may be ideal for their needs and desires.

Once your student has made an initial list of colleges to consider, keep in mind that their relative rankings will likely matter much less to her success than how well she takes advantage of the resources and opportunities available on a given campus.

The rankings only get us so far. Use them wisely but not exclusively as you guide your student toward the best college fit.

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