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Myth: College Rankings Are Very Important

Myth: College Rankings Are Very Important


College-bound high school students (and their parents) are fascinated by college rankings, but college rankings do not help students find the right college for them. College rankings are based on someone else’s criteria and are not personalized to the student.

College Rankings Are Not Very Important

There is conflicting information about the influence of college rankings on prospective college student choices. A 2012 survey by Art & Science Group reported that 66% of students considered college rankings in their college decisions. But the 2015 survey by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found that only 20% of college freshmen said college rankings were very important for their choice of college.

Digging deeper into the Art & Science Group study finds only 17% of students strongly agreed that college rankings were very important, not much different than the 18% figure in the same year’s UCLA survey.

So 2/3 of prospective college students look at college rankings, but only 1/5 consider them to be very important when deciding where to apply and where to enroll. They matter most to students with high admissions test scores who are seeking prestigious colleges and universities. They also matter to the students’ parents.

Even if prestige matters to you, you are unlikely to attend one of the top 100 four-year colleges, as the odds of admission are against you. The top 100 colleges enroll only about 6% of total college enrollment among the top 2,000 colleges.

Problems with College Rankings

A big problem with college rankings is they don’t provide a personalized match that considers your criteria and goals. Choosing a college is a subjective decision that depends on what’s best for you, not an arbitrary popularity contest.

The differences between the college ranked first and the college ranked 25th might not be significant. A difference of 0.1 points might be all it takes to shift a college up or down in the rankings. Greater variation in the rankings occurs only because of the annual tweaks in the ranking formulas.

College rankings are often circular in nature. The top-ranked colleges have top rankings because they have strong reputations. They have a strong reputation, in part, because they had a top ranking last year.

College rankings also are prone to manipulation. When a college switches to test optional, only students with good admissions test scores submit their scores to the college, causing an increase in the average admissions test scores.

Colleges also can improve their rankings by placing more emphasis on high school GPA and SAT/ACT test scores in their admissions criteria. This would increase the marketing and academic budgets and by networking with the presidents and provosts at peer colleges and universities. Even a change in the college’s name (from “college” to “university”) may have an impact.

Create a Personalized Comparison Instead

Instead of relying on college rankings, you should create your own ranking based on the factors that are important to you. Look for the right college at the right price. Evaluate colleges based on affordability, quality of education, happiness and outcomes (graduation rates, income after graduation, average debt at graduation and default rates), not prestige. Gather your own opinions after visiting the campus.

Assemble your impressions into a chart, with colleges in the columns and criteria in the rows. Eliminate any criterion for which there is no significant difference among the colleges. Then count the number of “wins” per college, perhaps assigning a different number of points to each college according to which is good, better or best. This can help clarify your thinking about which college is the right college for you.

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