People love ranking lists. There are tons of TV shows and articles ranking something, from the prettiest celebrities to the best songs of the 1980s. The fascination with college ranking lists has been around for over 30 years, ever since the U.S. News & World Report debuted its list in 1983. There are quite a few college ranking lists out there, but which ones are the best ones? Which ones should you look at?
Honestly, all overall college ranking lists are flawed, and you should spend more time researching and visiting colleges than obsessing over college rankings to determine which college you should attend. However, in this article I will detail the pros and cons of different college ranking lists and of college ranking lists in general. You can obtain some worthwhile information from these lists, so don't completely dismiss them.
The Benefits of Using College Ranking Lists
From looking at college ranking lists, you can discover colleges you may not have been familiar with that could be a good fit for you. By looking at these lists, you may find a school that matches what you're looking for in a college.
College ranking lists provide extensive data in one place for you to compare schools. In one list, you can see statistics for different colleges like average class size, high school GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and cost.
Also, these lists give you a rough idea of the reputations of different colleges. While these lists are subjective, they do tend to reflect how colleges are regarded in the academic and professional worlds. There is probably little difference between a #1 and a #5 school in terms of reputation, but the #1 school in a list is going to have a better reputation than #100.
Finally, these lists can give you an idea of what you need to do to make yourself competitive for admission to a specific college. These ranking lists often give you the average GPA, standardized test scores, and the percentage of students who graduate in the top 10% and 25% in their high school classes. From these numbers, you can determine what you should accomplish to make yourself a qualified applicant. Your numbers should compare favorably to those of the average student at a particular college if you want to give yourself a realistic shot at gaining admission.
Why You Should Avoid Basing Your College Decisions on the Rankings
Some of the criteria these lists use to compile their rankings are highly subjective and are based on survey responses. "Quality of life" and "academics" can be major factors for rankings and both are often based on opinions from surveys. The primary problem with these survey results is that they don't seem to be representative; they suffer from voluntary response bias and nonresponse bias.
For example, Princeton Review ranks colleges in 62 categories. Often, a college alerts the student body that the Princeton Review surveys are available online and then students choose to complete the surveys. Those students who volunteer to take the surveys are likely to not be representative of the student population as a whole. Typically, those who would volunteer have stronger opinions than those of the average student.
Similarly, U.S. News & World Report determines the academic quality of an institution based on survey responses from top academics and administrators from other colleges and from high school counselors. Are those who choose to respond to the surveys necessarily representative of all college representatives and high school counselors? Some top academics and knowledgeable high school counselors who are sent surveys choose not to submit responses.
Additionally, some colleges, like Reed College, may have their rankings affected because they choose not to submit information because they do not want to participate in college ranking lists.
Students can get too focused on the rankings instead of figuring out which school is the best fit for them. There's probably not much difference in the quality of education at a #5 school vs. a #10 school. The #10 school may be a much better fit for a student who could excel academically at both.
Furthermore, colleges are motivated and influenced by the rankings. Colleges understand that these rankings are popular and influential. They'll spend money on things the lists consider important or aggressively recruit students who have little chance of gaining admission just to raise their selectivity rating to increase their rank.
Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, some schools cheat to improve their rankings. Colleges have lied (and probably do lie) when reporting their numbers to college ranking lists to get a better rank.
Colleges have cheated to improve their rank.
How Should Reputation Factor Into Your College Decision?
As much as some of us like to discount the importance of reputation, it can play a significant role. Colleges that are more highly ranked more highly often have more motivated and academically gifted students, and colleges that do well in the rankings tend to have influential alumni and professional connections that can have a positive impact on your future. Similarly, graduates from well-ranked schools are often favored when they apply to professional or graduate schools.
Keep in mind that your work ethic and aptitude will have a far greater influence on your future success than the college you attend. You can be highly successful regardless of the college you go to; however, going to a highly ranked school will offer you undeniable advantages.
Now, let's take a look at some of the better and more well-known lists.
U.S. News & World Report
The U.S. News college rankings are viewed as the gold standard of college ranking lists. Its list is the most well-known and referenced.
Here is a basic overview of how U.S. News determines its rankings:
- A total weight of 40% is given to factors related to "outcomes," such as student retention and graduation rates.
- 20% is based on a school's faculty resources, based on five factors: class size, faculty salary, faculty with the highest degree in their field, student-faculty ratio, and the proportion of faculty who are full time.
- 20% is based on expert opinion, or what top academics (presidents, provosts, deans of admissions, etc.) at peer institutions think of the school.
- Financial resources account for 10% of the ranking. This includes the average spending per student on instruction, student services, and related expenses (not including dorms or athletics).
- 7% is based on student excellence, which includes the standardized test scores, class rank, and high school GPAs of admitted students.
- The final 3% is based on alumni giving, or how much alums with bachelor's degrees from the school gave during the past few years.
U.S. News separates colleges into four categories for its rankings: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges. The categories allow for more direct comparisons and avoid ranking a large public college with 40,000 undergraduate students against a small liberal arts college with less than 1,000.
Because U.S. News surveys top academics and college administrators to determine academic reputation, the rankings do provide a general idea of how well regarded a school is in academia.
U.S. News rankings heavily emphasize student retention rates and graduation rates. Both are important factors to consider when choosing a college. They provide some clues about the quality of the support services and the student satisfaction level at different colleges
Finally, because the U.S. News rankings are the most prestigious of all the ranking lists, they are the most influential and help shape public opinion. The top-ranked schools in U.S. News are generally considered to be the best schools by employers, academics, and admissions committees.
Graduation rate is an important factor in the rankings.
Not all colleges are ranked in the U.S. News rankings. For the latest rankings, 404 colleges are listed as "unranked" within the four categories of schools.
Schools are unranked because they lack regional accreditation, fewer than 200 students are enrolled, don't have a six-year graduation rate, are highly specialized (in arts, business, engineering, health, medicine, and tech), or didn't get enough responses on the U.S. News peer assessment survey.
Therefore, if you're interested in a very small school or a college that's fairly new, this rankings list won't be very helpful for you.
Also, in the U.S. News rankings, there is little emphasis on quality of life. The most important criteria for the U.S. News rankings are the surveys regarding academic quality and the rates for student retention and graduation. This rankings list is less helpful than others in indicating how much students enjoy their experience at a particular college.
While I previously mentioned some of the problems with relying on survey responses in U.S. News to determine academic reputation, there is an additional major problem. Many of those who respond to the surveys may not even be qualified to assess the academics at different colleges.
The typical respondent grades about half of the colleges in his or her category. There are 392 National Universities. Are respondents knowledgeable enough to evaluate the academic programs of over 100 colleges, or are they simply relying on reputations generated from earlier rankings?
Prominent writer Malcolm Gladwell addresses this point in a New Yorker article:
(W)hen U.S. News asks a university president to perform the impossible task of assessing the relative merits of dozens of institutions he knows nothing about, he relies on the only source of detailed information at his disposal that assesses the relative merits of dozens of institutions he knows nothing about: U.S. News. ...The U.S. News ratings are a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Furthermore, the criteria used in U.S. News rankings seem to favor private colleges almost by default while disadvantaging public schools. Private schools often score higher in selectivity because public schools are more focused on being accessible to qualified in-state applicants. Similarly, because private colleges tend to have significantly lower student populations, they can offer smaller classes and their student-faculty ratio is lower.
However, public colleges can offer advantages that are not measured nor reflected in the rankings. Public colleges can have larger and more diverse student bodies, more academic programs and majors, and more extracurricular activities.
Finally, U.S. News rankings don't directly consider the salaries of graduates nor the likelihood of getting the job you want after graduating. Many people go to college specifically to prepare for a certain career or to get a well-paying job after they graduate. U.S. News rankings may not be as beneficial in helping you to decide which college is most likely to help you reach your professional goals.
U.S. News doesn't consider the salaries of graduates.
The Forbes college rankings list is newer and less prestigious than the U.S. News list, but the Forbes list is still very popular, and Forbes is considered to be a reputable publication.
Forbes emphasizes student outcomes from colleges to determine its rankings. Rankings are heavily dependent on post-graduation success, freshman retention rates, and graduation rates.
- 20% for alumni salary (both 1-4 years after graduation and 10+ years after graduation)
- 15% for student debt (both how much debt students graduated with and their five-year loan repayment rates)
- 15% for return on investment, which looks at how long it takes students to pay their college costs based on the total net price of obtaining a college degree divided by the post-enrollment earnings boost students get compared to the typical salary of a high school graduate in their state
- 15% for graduation rate
- 15% for the "American Leaders List" which is a roster they compile of thousands of people and their alma maters. They compare the number of undergraduate alumni for a school with the number of people it has on the list.
- 10% for the retention rate of full-time students
- 10% for academic success (determined half by the number of awards won by alumni and half by the number of doctorates conferred upon alumni)
"Student Satisfaction"—both during and after college—is an important component of the rankings. The Forbes list may be more beneficial than the U.S. News list in determining the quality of life at different colleges. Because you'll probably be spending at least four years at the college you attend, you want to not only choose a school that will educate you well and prepare you for your future, but you also want to be happy during those years. You want to enjoy your living environment, your peers, and the time you spend outside of class.
By emphasizing post-graduate success, the Forbes list may give you a better indication of the impact of a specific college on attaining your future professional goals.
Finally, the emphasis on student debt and return on investment in the Forbes rankings separates it from most of the other college ranking lists. By measuring the average federal student loan repayment rate, the Forbes list may give you an idea of the affordability of a school, the generosity of a school's financial aid, and whether students are capable of paying back their loans after they graduate.
Unlike U.S. News, Forbes does not separate colleges into categories. There is no distinction between the different types of colleges in the Forbes rankings. It's extremely difficult to effectively compare schools that vary tremendously in size, degree options, and research capabilities.
Because some of these colleges are so different from one another, it's impossible to determine which school is "better" for everyone. For example, how can you rank Penn State University, which has over 40,000 undergraduates and more than 160 majors against Wesleyan College, which has fewer than 700 undergraduate students and only 31 majors?
Additionally, the Forbes list can favor schools that have wealthy student bodies. A college's student debt grade may not reflect the generosity of the school's financial aid or whether students get high-paying jobs after they graduate. Students from affluent families are less likely to have to take out loans and are more likely to be able to pay back loans. Therefore, schools that have more wealthy students are likely to do well in the "student debt" component of the rankings.
There is still only a small emphasis paid to the actual student experience. The student satisfaction survey given to students is only a very small component of the rankings. Additionally, information from Rank My Professors is hardly a reliable source to determine how happy students are with their classes at a particular school. Teacher evaluations from Rank My Professors are not representative because they suffer from nonresponse bias. Most students don't use that website. Furthermore, Forbes rankings provide little information about what life is like on campus.
Finally, Forbes has a very narrow definition of success. "Student Success" is based on the salary of alumni and whether students obtain prestigious positions and awards.
Additionally, schools with pre-professional programs in potentially high-paying fields like accounting and business may get a bump in the rankings. That doesn't mean much to you if you're not interested in pursuing accounting or business.
Similarly, colleges who have more alumni who go into less lucrative fields like teaching or non-profit work may score poorly in "return on investment" and "academic success." However, that is no indication that a college isn't good or that its alumni aren't successful.
Niche is a website that has been around since 2002. It provides rankings and reviews for neighborhoods, cities, and schools. The Niche college rankings are less well-known than those of U.S. News and Forbes. However, the Niche college rankings list does provide some information and advantages that the other ranking lists don't have.
Niche rankings are based on the overall experience at traditional 4-year colleges and universities. Here's how Niche determines their "best colleges" rankings:
- 40% for academics and grades, which includes things like acceptance rates and student and alumni responses about a school's academics
- 27.5% to value, which includes average student loan amounts and alumni salaries
- 7.5% to professors, which considers student-to-faculty ratios and faculty awards
- 5% to campus, which is the quality of campus accommodations and facilities
- 5% to diversity, like the ethnic composition of the campus, the international student body percentage, and how many out-of-state students attend the school
- 5% to student life, which factors in things like safety, diversity, and athletics
- 5% to student surveys on overall experience
- 2.5% to the local area, including location, rent, crime rates, and local amenities
- 2.5% to safety, including the campus crime rate and health/safety services on campus
Additionally, Niche incorporates survey responses from students regarding the quality of academics at their college and statistics and survey responses about diversity on campus to determine the academics grade. Student survey responses are factored into the score a school receives for each category listed above.
Then, 12% of the rankings are based on student survey responses about the overall experience at the college they currently or recently attended. Additional factors that influence the rankings are statistics and student survey responses based on campus quality (8%), loan default rate (6%), athletics (5%), average net price (5%), diversity (5%), local area (5%), endowment per full-time student (4%), "guys and girls" (4%), health and safety (4%), party scene (4%), and private gifts/grants per full-time student (3%).
Niche grades colleges' party scenes.
Niche relies on many more factors to determine its rankings. The rankings are based on more than 50 statistics and survey responses on 20 topics from almost 300,000 current students and alumni. Niche tries to incorporate every factor that could possibly influence the college experience, from the acceptance rate to the attractiveness of guys and girls on campus. It seems to be a more well-rounded ranking list instead of just using factors that it deems important.
Also, the Niche rankings place a much higher emphasis on factors that are related to quality of life. Student survey responses about the quality of the overall experience at the college count for 12% of the rankings. Additionally, Niche gives scores for "campus quality," "athletics," and "party scene."
Besides overall college rankings, Niche also provides college rankings in 54 different categories. Some of those ranking lists include "best campus food," "best academics," "best party schools," and "safest campus." You can focus on the ranking lists in categories that are important to you instead of just looking at the overall rankings that may utilize criteria that don't matter to you.
Another positive of the Niche rankings is that they incorporate average net price. Net price is the average cost of a school after financial aid for students receiving grants or scholarship aid. Unlike metrics such as average amount of federal loans and loan default rate, net price doesn't favor schools with more wealthy students.
Finally, Niche is one of the few ranking lists that factors in diversity in its rankings. Diversity doesn't just refer to the ethnic and racial breakdown of the student body. Niche uses "diversity" to mean that a school "fosters a community that accepts and promotes a diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses." Also, a diverse school has a significant percentage of international students and students that represent every geographic region of the United States, and the faculty is diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity.
Niche is not as well-known as U.S. News or Forbes. Because its rankings are not as prestigious or referenced, they have much less of an impact on the reputations of different colleges.
Additionally, because Niche uses many more factors in its rankings, it's likely to use criteria that don't matter to you in a college. You may not be very concerned about a school's party scene, the athletics, or how the girls rank. Those are all factors in the Niche rankings.
Use college ranking lists to determine the reputations of different colleges. The ranking lists do tend to reflect and shape public opinion. While the exact ranking of a school will vary from list to list, the colleges that are consistently ranked highly do offer advantages while you're in college and after you graduate.
Browse college ranking lists to discover new colleges that may be a good fit for you. You may not be familiar with Williams College or Pomona College, but Forbes ranked both of them within their top 20 colleges. There are literally thousands of colleges, and ranking lists can introduce you to excellent schools that may match what you're looking for in a college.
Instead of just looking at overall college ranking lists, pay attention to lists that focus on criteria that matter to you. You can look at lists from Niche that rank schools based on "best technology" or "best food" if you care about those things.
Overall college rankings vary from list to list because there are so many factors that go into the college experience, and there is no exact science to determine if one school is better than another. U.S. News ranks the University of Chicago as the #6 National University while Forbes ranks it as the #23 college.
Don't get too caught up in the specific ranking of a school. Each list focuses on the criteria that it deems important. When you're looking at a college rankings list, you should also be familiar with how the rankings are determined.
Finally, college rankings should only be one small tool you use to help determine your college decision. More important than a college's ranking is figuring out whether or not the school is a good fit for you. Does it have the extracurricular activities you want to pursue? Does the school excel in the academic areas that most interest you? Are there appropriate support services that will allow you to be successful? How's the social climate? Make sure you know how to choose a college.
For a complete overview of the college search process, read our comprehensive guide on how to choose a college.
If you need to improve your grades to help get into the college of your choice, check out this post on how to raise your GPA in high school.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.