Everything You Need to Know about College Rankings

Every year, millions of U.S. students decide which university they want to attend. Around 20% of students rely on college rankings to make their final decision. Over the last two decades, such rankings have significantly grown in popularity.

The picture shows the definition of college rankings.

But are these lists reliable? Which criteria can be trusted? And which rankings are the best? Keep reading this article by our custom-writing experts to find answers to these and many other questions.

🎓 College Rankings 101

Simply put, college and university rankings are annual lists of best schools ranged according to some criteria. Typically, they are made by websites, newspapers, or magazines. U.S. News & World Report and Forbes college rankings are considered the most reliable, but there are also many others. Each of them ranks schools based on their own criteria.

Let’s have a look at the basics of college rankings and see how they are made.

How College Rankings Are Created

The primary goal of college and university ranking systems is to help students and their parents in their choice of an educational institution. This choice is crucial for many reasons:

  1. Studying at a college or university usually requires spending a generous amount of money.
  2. In many ways, education determines the success of your future career.   
  3. Factors such as campus life are also essential for students’ mental well-being. 

For that reason, it comes as no surprise that rankings are very popular among students. Usually, they include the following areas:

The picture shows the general areas included in college rankings.
  • Beginning characteristics. This includes student admission scores, acceptance rate, and selectivity index. 
  • Final outcomes. This includes information about retention and graduation rates, the graduates’ employability, and average salaries.
  • Research opportunities. This factor is usually presented as the level of funding for faculty work and the number of faculty publications or citations. 
  • Learning environment. This factor reflects students’ engagement and satisfaction with the learning conditions. 
  • Reputation. This metric is concerned with teaching and research quality of the institution. It includes academic and employer reputation.

Before publishing their college ranking lists, magazines and websites consider various metrics for each general area. The final score determining a university’s rank is the sum of the institutions’ scores for each metric. While scoring, publishers consider objective numbers and subjective opinions.

College Ranking Metrics

As you already know, every publication uses its own criteria to determine rankings. Despite the variety, several factors are the same in most publications: 

Affordability This metric shows how much a student will have to pay for education. It’s usually in the form of the net price for an average middle-class family. Knowing this metric allows applicants to calculate their student debt.
Student engagement This criterion is a crucial factor for many students, as it in many ways determines their overall university experience. Student engagement depends a lot on the institution’s program and staff. Many rankings, especially those related to business, pay less attention to this factor. 
Selectivity Selective colleges admit only talented and hard-working students. It’s generally thought that such colleges are more prestigious. However, it’s also true that selectivity can make students’ lives more stressful. 
Graduation rate This metric is the percentage of students who graduate from the university with a degree. It’s used to measure student success.
Mid-career pay This metric shows how much a student can earn on average after graduating the university. Usually, MBA rankings are more concerned with the mid-career pay than other merits.
Average faculty salary This criterion is the mean salary earned by the faculty of a particular college or university. It tells you how good the overall quality of the institution is. Generally, more experienced professors earn higher salaries. For that reason, a higher average salary is likely to reflect a more-tenured faculty.
Student loan rate This ranking factor shows if the school meets the financial needs of its students by providing scholarship programs that cover the loans of undergraduate students.
Research output This is the total number of citations produced by the school over a certain period. The more citations there are in publications, the more credible and prestigious the school is considered to be.
Student-to-faculty ratio This metric is the number of students who attend the school divided by the number of faculty in the institution. Student-to-faculty ratio is used to measure academic quality.
Diversity This metric is becoming increasingly important. Universities that attract people of all genders, races, and nationalities allow a more diverse exchange of ideas and promote equality.
Endowment This criterion is the total funding of the school. It shows the financial strength of the institution. If the school’s endowment is high, the students have more access to various resources.
Sports This metric includes various sports programs for students who want to pursue a career in this field. 

How to Interpret College Rankings

When you see a college ranking for the first time, you’re likely to be confused. What do the numbers indicate? What should you pay attention to? Well, here are some tips to help you make sense of them:

  • Consistencies. If you review multiple rankings across different years, you may notice certain trends. For instance, some universities may rank in similar positions on various lists. It’s also possible that an institution appears in a similar position year after year or ranks consistently for certain programs. 
  • Changes. It’s normal for a school to move a couple of positions up or down over the years. Sometimes, however, a school’s placement changes drastically, or it can disappear from the ranking altogether. In that case, you may question whether the ranking methodology has changed or the school has completely changed its operations. 
  • Longevity. New schools or programs that don’t complete a required minimum number of surveys may not appear in rankings. It can take time for a program to become eligible. 
  • Financial data. There are cases when a school ranks well due to higher starting salaries. This often happens because of its proximity to an expensive job market. If you see that a return on investment is lower, the reason could reflect the program’s overall cost and not the quality of the salary itself.

⚖️ Pros and Cons of College Rankings

With all this information in mind, you might be asking yourself: “Are college rankings any good? Do their benefits outweigh their drawbacks?” Well, we’ve got the answer. Keep reading to find out!

Why College Rankings Are Useful

The popularity of college rankings is not hard to understand considering their numerous benefits:

  • They provide extensive information about schools. For instance, most of the lists include mid-career pay and campus life-related data. There are even college baseball rankings for those who are interested.
  • They help students compare different schools. By studying the information in the lists, students can learn more about a school’s benefits and choose the one that suits them most.
  • They help universities attract new students. Colleges that are ranked high improve their reputation and become more prestigious.
  • They promote the transparency of information. If a college wants to be featured on the list, it needs to ensure it has nothing to hide.
  • They also help employers. Many corporate recruiters, especially in the business sphere, use MBA rankings to hire only the best employees.

Why College Rankings Are Unreliable

Despite college rankings being popular among students, there are mixed opinions on the helpfulness and accuracy of these lists. It’s essential to be careful when reviewing them. Keep several things in mind:

  • Most of the criteria serve as proxies. For instance, the number of citations is a proxy for a research outcome, even though the citation itself doesn’t always reflect that outcome.
  • There are too many different lists. Because various ratings use unique ranking methods, it may be hard to understand which list is more reliable.
  • It’s possible to cheat one’s way to the top. Some schools may manipulate their results to be higher placed on a ranking list.
  • There’s always room for bias. Many prestigious schools may get higher ranking due to the halo effect and reputation.
  • You can still choose wrong. Students tend to choose universities that are ranked higher on the list. However, after getting into the school, many realize that it’s not right for them, and they don’t feel comfortable studying there.
  • Many important factors are absent in the rankings. It includes flexible schedule, tutoring availability, and alignment with employers.
  • Affordability is not a reliable metric. The average is defined as middle class. However, that definition can be ambiguous, as each family has a different financial situation.
  • Rankings tend to prioritize certain schools. Since MBA rankings are 40% focused on salaries, some excellent schools may not get enough attention, as their return investment is lower. The rankings also don’t include information about bonuses and additional pay.

🤔 Should You Trust College Ranking Systems?

Considering all the downsides of college rankings, more and more students started to question their reliability. If you can’t decide whether to use them or not, here’s our advice. The best option is to use rankings as a starting point. If there’s a university that has caught your attention, try to learn more about it by doing some research.

Reputation and prestige are not the primary factors determining how good or bad a university is. Such factors as mid-career salary don’t always guarantee success. It’s also worth mentioning that many good schools that provide flexible schedules or excellent programs don’t make it onto the list because they don’t satisfy the ranking’s criteria. Remember that success depends on the person and the effort they put in.

Best Way to Choose a College

It’s not easy to decide where to pursue higher education. While you may not want to ignore college rankings altogether, there are certainly other factors to consider when making your choice. Here are things you need to make a note of while looking for your dream school:

  1. Think about the area you’re interested in and consider your expectations.
  2. See how much money you can and are willing to spend on your college.
  3. Decide what things make you feel comfortable. What is more important to you: classroom and campus size, extracurricular activities, sports programs, or maybe opportunities for non-traditional students?
  4. When you look into rankings, pay attention to the metrics that interest you the most instead of the overall rating or the abstract graduation rate. For instance, if campus size is important to you, make sure to check that box in the list.
  5. Select several colleges that you want to learn more about. It might also be a good idea to visit the school, attend their webinars, and ask questions of faculty members.
  6. Choose a school that satisfies your personal needs and can provide you with learning opportunities.

If, in the end, you decide to go with a school that has a lower ranking, you shouldn’t worry about it too much. Less prestigious schools have their own benefits! For instance, they are usually more affordable and offer various scholarship programs to help with tuition.

🔝 Bonus: 4 Most Accurate College Rankings  

So, you’ve decided to use a college ranking list to help pick your dream school. With the abundance of college rankings out there, it’s easy to get lost. Which ones can you trust? To make the choice easier for you, we’ve prepared a list of the most reliable rankings. Check it out:

  1. U.S. News & World Report. 
    • Pros: This ranking separates colleges into 4 categories: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges. U.S. News & World Report lists are the most prestigious. They heavily emphasize student retention and graduation rates.
    • Cons: These lists put little emphasis on the quality of student life. Also, if you’re interested in a fairly new smaller college or university, this ranking won’t be very helpful.
  2. Forbes.
    • Pros: Forbes college ranking is newer and less prestigious than the U.S. News list; nevertheless, it’s still very popular. It mainly focuses on post-graduation success, freshman retention, and graduation rates. Forbes lists pay special attention to students’ satisfaction and give you an idea of the school’s affordability.
    • Cons: Unlike U.S. News, Forbes doesn’t separate colleges into categories. Forbes list can also favor schools that have wealthy student bodies.
  3. Niche.
    • Pros: Niche is a website that has provided rankings since 2002. Niche college rankings are less famous than U.S. News and Forbes. However, they are better-rounded: they emphasize factors related to the quality of life and provide college rankings in 54 different categories.
    • Cons: Since the Niche rankings are not very prestigious, they have less impact on a college’s reputation. It’s also important to note that because Niche uses more factors in its rankings, it’s likely to use criteria that are not very important to you.
  4. The Princeton Review. 
    • Pros: The Princeton Review’s rankings mainly focus on annual surveys of college students attending each school. Similar to U.S. News and Niche, colleges are broken down into different categories. It allows you to review colleges by environmental friendliness and even look for schools with the best libraries.
    • Cons: You should note that The Princeton Review doesn’t rank the schools numerically. Instead, they suggest that any school included in a top-20 list is an excellent example of that particular category.

We hope that this article was interesting and helpful for you. Feel free to share it with your friends. We wish you good luck finding your perfect school!

🔍 References

This article was developed by the editorial team of Custom-Writing.org, a professional writing service with 3-hour delivery.