Students and parents often turn to college ranking publications in their college search. Usually, the same schools dominate the lists year after year, appearing to confirm their reputation as the best. However, rankings can be highly misleading, so you need to use them wisely during the school search process. US News itself states “it’s important that you use the rankings to supplement-not substitute for-careful thought.” After all, what we are looking for is not the best-ranked school but the school that is best for the student.
Numerous organizations publish annual lists that rank colleges and universities. Each ranking organization emphasizes a unique set of criteria it deems most important but which may be irrelevant to a particular student. Among the most well-known, and also most heavily criticized, is the U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best College lists. U.S. News ranks schools based on “16 indicators” of academic quality including student retention rates and reputation. They also divide schools by the size, location, and type of school. Another popular rating source is the Princeton Review, which derives its data from student opinion surveys. The Brookings Institute has just come out with a new ranking which analyzes the “value-added”, defined as the difference between actual alumni outcomes (like salaries) and the outcomes one would expect given a student’s characteristics and the type of institution, of a college degree.
WHAT RANKING SYSTEMS LEAVE OUT
Traditional ranking systems, however, leave out more information than they include. Most leave out some of the most important factors, such as where students go on to graduate school and their future employment. Job placement rates and salary ranges are very important, particularly given the cost of education, and are not part of the calculation in most rankings.
HOW TO USE RANKINGS EFFECTIVELY
You might then wonder if there is a use for rankings at all. There is. Use the lists as a tool to generate possible college matches. Since the data is broken down by categories, you can search for elements you think you want in a school. Jot down schools that meet those criteria. Write down ones you know as well as ones you’ve never heard of or given much thought to – you might stumble on a new place just right for you.
Make sure to use the rankings in conjunction with a college guidebook or website that profiles every school. Work closely with your educational consultant, discussing your needs and expectations. This way, you will generate a well-informed list of schools to take you into the next phase of your college search: reading school websites, taking virtual tours, attending information sessions, and making campus visits.