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How Important are College Rankings?

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One of the most common tools used by students to choose a college is a ranking system. College admissions counselors, however, warn students against giving rankings too much emphasis when deciding among different colleges.

“Our members tend to have a really contentious relationship with the rankings,” said David Hawkins, the executive director of educational content and policy with the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “They really don’t like the lack of nuisance that is involved with an effort to create a rank ordered list of college.”

Although few are surprised to see schools like Harvard and Princeton at the top of various rankings each year, the lists are subjective. They depend on the methodology of the group making the list. Factors, such as class size and the degrees professors obtained, can be weighted more heavily in one ranking than another.

“Even though it’s cloaked in data and feels very objective, it is a subject judgment these publications are making,” Hawkins said.

Additionally, about a quarter of a college’s score comes from what is known as peer evaluation. Ranking organizations ask presidents, provosts, deans of admission and high school counselors to weigh in on other colleges.

Rankings also have lead to some colleges like George Washington University, Emory University and Claremont McKenna College to misrepresent data such as test scores, high school rankings and the number of applications received. In response to this, U.S. News and World Report dropped the schools from the rankings for the years they misreported the information.

Still, Hawkins says rankings have a place in the college admissions search if they are used at the beginning of a college hunt. Really, the only ranking that matters is the best college for you as a student. A magazine isn’t going to be able to tell you that.”

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