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Do College Rankings Matter?

a young man sits in class with his pencil raised

When I talk to students and listen to their stories about college prep, it’s hard not to be concerned. I’m concerned because it seems that college choice has become a competition–a competition among students about who can attend the most prestigious college. It’s all about the prestige, the name, and the rankings and very little about the fit.

College rankings attract a sizeable audience of students, college administrators, and everyday people who simply want to know how colleges stack up to each other. Whether directly through the rankings list or through the conceptions of prestige that the list reinforces, rankings influence applicants’ decision-making significantly. 

College rankings often dominate conversations surrounding higher education. But it’s important to note what truly matters when choosing the right educational path.

What are college rankings?

Each year, various organizations publish a list of the best colleges in the U.S. Within these lists, their rankings shift as they change criteria and categories. They often shift to address changing school policies, as in adding test-optional rankings due to the change in many colleges’ admissions policies.

Throughout your college prep process, you will likely hear counselors, advisors, and parents discuss college rankings. They will use words like “Top 20 Colleges” and “Top Tiered Business School.” The rankings come from these lists of best colleges, and parents will often steer students toward those at the top of the list. The rankings are often used to describe “good” colleges.

Colleges care greatly about these rankings since they can significantly impact their ability to fundraise from alumni, recruit faculty, and attract the best students. 

How are colleges ranked?

Various organizations produce college rankings. The rankings typically consider these factors:

Graduation and Student Retention Rates how many students graduate from a school or remain students beyond their first year.

Graduate Performance employment statistics for graduates.

Academic Reputation an assessment of academics by official surveys.

Faculty Resources faculty salaries, student-to-faculty ratio, and class size.

Student Selectivity for Entering Classadmitted students’ SAT/ACT scores and class ranks, as well as acceptance rates.

Financial Resources per Student numerical representation of money available for each student based on endowment and student population.

Graduate Indebtedness outstanding loans owed by the average graduate.

As stated previously, different organizations use different metrics to create college rankings, so this list is not exhaustive. While these metrics provide valuable insights into a college's strengths, they often fail to capture the complete picture.

One of the primary criticisms of college rankings is their reliance on quantitative data, which may not fully capture the qualitative aspects of a college experience. Factors like campus culture, student support services, and extracurricular opportunities play a crucial role in shaping the student experience but are often overlooked in traditional rankings.

Additionally, the methodologies used by ranking organizations can vary significantly, leading to discrepancies in results. Some rankings prioritize selectivity and admission rates, while others focus on alumni outcomes or student satisfaction. As a result, a college's position in one ranking may differ drastically from another, causing confusion for prospective students. 

Where can you find college rankings?

Numerous ranking lists are available for you to use when creating your college list. Each has different ranking criteria and methodology, causing colleges to be ranked differently on each list.

Appily's Best Colleges by State List

See the best colleges in every state to find the right school in the right location.

Appily's Best Colleges by Major List

See the best colleges by the majors you're interested in. 

U.S. News & World Report

U.S. News College Rankings are the most well-known and widely used rankings list available to prospective college students. Their rankings provide a good starting point for students trying to compare schools.


Forbes spotlights the 500 U.S. colleges that check all the boxes: impressive graduation rates, high graduate salaries, and great outcomes for low-income students, to name a few. 

Princeton Review

Their 2024 edition reveals 50 ranking lists of the top 25 colleges in categories from Great Financial Aid to Best Career Services to Profs Get High Marks. They surveyed 165,000 students whose ratings of their colleges on dozens of topics are the sole basis for these rankings.

Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranking emphasizes how much a college improves its students’ chances of graduating on time, and how much it boosts their salaries after graduation.

Washington Monthly

This list ranks four-year schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: social mobility, research, and providing opportunities for public service.

Educate to Career

The ETC College Rankings Index is the standard for ranking colleges based on factors families care about – ROI (Return on Investment).

How does U.S. News rank colleges?

U.S. News explains how they rank colleges below:

The underlying data used to compute these measures was collected from third-party sources and oftentimes reported directly by schools to U.S. News in alignment with what they recently reported to the government and/or following Common Data Set (CDS) initiative guidance.

U.S. News evaluated nearly 1,500 U.S. four-year bachelor's degree-granting institutions on as many as 19 measures for its 39th rankings edition. These statistics only pertain to measures reflecting academic quality and graduate outcomes – factors that are universally important to prospective students. But also important considerations vary from person to person, like campus culture, strength in specific majors, and financial aid offered.

To be ranked, institutions had to meet the following conditions: have regional accreditation, be included in Carnegie’s basic classification but not designated as a "highly specialized" school, enroll at least 100 undergraduate students, have reported financial expenditures data to the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) finance survey, and have reported a six-year graduation rate of full-time, first-year bachelor’s degree-seeking students in recent years. Surveyed schools not passing all of these criteria are listed as unranked.

Should you use college rankings?

For many students, prestige is important in deciding whether to attend a specific college. It’s hard to resist the allure of a “Top 10” college that provides you with bragging rights to impress others. Prestige also correlates with selectivity in admissions and garners respect in the academic community.

However, these rankings are often misleading as they tend to focus more on academics and less on other factors like social life, extracurriculars, and even diversity. Rankings should merely be a tool to use when creating your college list, not the sole factor in determining a college choice.

U.S. News fully acknowledges this fact: "The editors of U.S. News believe rankings are only one of many criteria students should consider in choosing a college. Simply because a school is top in its category does not mean it is the top choice for everyone. The rankings should not be used as the sole basis to choose one school over another." 

What’s the alternative?

Most college experts agree these college rankings should have little weight when choosing a college. But let’s get real for a moment: we all rank everything, from movies to music, to restaurants, to hotels, to companies. Consumer reports rank almost everything known to man: appliances, electronics, automobiles, and more. The New York Times Bestseller list ranks books. Rankings are a part of our lives.

They are there because students use them. But is that so horrible? Whichever rankings you choose, there will be flaws because no ranking system is perfect. As with all other rankings, we should use them as a place to begin. Looking for a car, consumer reports rank cars based on multiple criteria—choose the ones that are important to you. When getting ready to purchase a new computer, tech magazines rank them based on performance and functionality. These provide consumers with information for further research.

The alternative is to use them as a reference base and create your rankings. Add them to part of the process of finding a good fit college. Don’t discount them altogether. No ranking system is perfect, but they can provide you with a place to begin and a means to rule out colleges that don’t fit your preferences.

What should your own rankings include?

Your rankings will be tailored toward your needs, not based on a subjective collection of information from the colleges themselves. Colleges have been known to pad their data, cheat on the reporting, and shift the data in their favor to rank high on the list.

A good college list should have three “fit” criteria: financial fit, academic fit, and emotional fit. Consider each school by asking these “fit” questions:

·   Financial Fit (Does the college fit into your family’s budget?)

·   Academic Fit (Does the college fit into your academic aspirations?)

·   Emotional Fit (Can you see yourself attending college there?)

Additionally, you might have a college deal breaker. My daughter’s college deal-breaker had nothing to do with academics or college rankings. When she was small, she aspired to attend college in Boston. Coming from Texas, that was a bit of a surprise–especially since she had never visited Boston.

But when college decision time came around, Bentley College in Boston beat out SMU in Texas because of its location. Her decision demonstrates the fact that emotional fit can play a significant factor in choosing a college.

Your own rankings are based on the criteria you choose. This means that your rankings are the best!

What’s the takeaway from all of this?

While college rankings can offer valuable insights, they should not be the sole factor in building your list and choosing a college. Instead, you should prioritize factors aligning with your needs and aspirations. Focusing on fit allows you to make informed decisions that set you up for success in college and beyond. Ultimately, the true measure of a college's worth lies in its ability to empower you to achieve your goals and realize your full potential.

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