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Are Ranking Systems a Good Way to Pick a College?

Each year, a number of magazines and college guides publish college rankings. While there tends to be some similarity in where a college ranks across various publications, you will frequently see a particular school fluctuate from guide to guide. For example, one college might be ranked #3 by one publisher but #14 by another. Therefore, after reading several of these lists you may start to ask yourself, “Should I really pick a college based upon rankings?”

Can I rely on rankings as my primary source of information about a college’s reputation?

Answered simply -- no! Colleges and universities are assigned a rank based on how they respond to a series of queries designed by a publisher. And it’s important to recognize that the answers are usually an amalgam of objective and subjective data. Additionally, the opinions of administrators at other colleges also sometimes factor in as well. In other words, while there is some validity to these lists, they should also be taken with a grain of salt. More importantly, you should never assume that the institution with the highest score -- no matter the criteria -- is the best college for you.

The concept of the best college is meaningful only when it relates to an individual -- a prospective student like you. The question you should ask in ranking colleges is, “Which college is right for me?” The college or university that most completely suits your individual needs, abilities, and interests is the one that is right for you and usually there is more than just one that fits that description.

So what are the ranking systems good for?

Ranking systems provide one major benefit for the prospective college student: They make it easy to compare one institution against another on the items used in the particular publication’s ranking methodology. For example, U.S. News & World Report collects data on colleges and universities in areas such as:

  • Graduation rates

  • Retention rates

  • Middle 50 percent of standardized test scores

  • Percent of classes with under 20 students

  • Percent of applicants accepted

  • Percentage admitted who ranked in the top 10 percent.

This information is presented in consistent fashion for each college included in the rankings. A prospective student can quickly scan the ranking data to see where a particular school stands on a given item such as the retention rate (i.e. the number of freshmen who re-enroll for the sophomore year).

Ranking systems normally group institutions into categories based on their level of study (e.g. two-year programs or four-year programs), educational mission (e.g. liberal arts colleges are ranked separately from universities) and by the geographic region in which they are located. (Some institutions are considered national since they tend to enroll many students from all regions of the country.)

If you’re just beginning your college search, ranking lists could be a good jumping off point.  Certainly, they offer insight into how schools are regarded and provide easy means of comparison.  However, as we stated above, it’s imperative to remember that the concept of the “best college” is meaningful only as it relates to your academic interests and needs.  And that is something that cannot be determined by ranking lists alone. 


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Don Munce