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Decoding and using college ranking lists

Combing through the myriad of college ranging lists out there can be confusing. Katherine Cohen of Ivywise explains how they can be put to use at the start of searching for colleges.
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Among high school guidance counselors, college-bound teens and their parents, the annual college rankings are a hot topic of conversation. The Newsweek/Kaplan College Guide, U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review and Forbes are among the “best college” lists that students use to guide them in their college searches. What do these college rankings really mean and how much credence should people give them when choosing a college?

Understanding the criteria and methodology used to develop the lists is key. The criteria employed by each ranking organization differ. For example, U.S. News & World Report considers selectivity and alumni giving, while Forbes emphasizes post-graduate success, student satisfaction and student debt.

The rankings also differ in the manner in which they are reported. Some organizations report rankings for best schools overall while others are categorized by geography, highlighting best national or regional schools, and still others are segmented by areas of study or even by student amenities. Princeton Review ranks schools according 62 categories — from the academic to the arcane, with categories such as “Best College Radio Station” (No. 1: DePauw University in Indiana) or “Dorms Like Palaces” (No. 1: Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania).

Trying to compare apples to apples can be difficult. For example, Sarah Lawrence College in New York is ranked No. 13 on Princeton Review’s “Professors Get High Marks” list and ranked No. 170 on Forbes “America's Best Colleges” list, but is not ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Other schools may show up at the top of several lists, but within different categories. Williams College in Massachusetts is rated No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report as a national liberal arts schools, Forbes rates it No. 1 overall and Princeton Review ranks it No. 7 for classroom experience.

As if different criteria and different categories among lists were not confusing enough, the ranking criteria can change from year to year, affecting a school's placement from one year to the next. Even if a school moves up or down in a list from year to year, it doesn't mean that the school itself is significantly better or worse than it was the year before. Forbes ranked Duke University in North Carolina No. 104 in 2009. This year it was ranked No. 41 — a 63-place difference. What's the reason for the improved placement? Possibly Forbes' addition of new variables and the elimination of faculty awards in its ranking criteria. 

Overall, rankings are a zero sum game for colleges. Only one school can be ranked number one on each list. Furthermore, the rankings are subjective and there’s a lot that’s not evaluated, such as the research opportunities available to students, how much time faculty members spend advising students outside the classroom, how friendly or supportive other students are, whether the school contributes to students’ personal development, or the effectiveness of the school’s career services. This type of information is more reflective of the student experience at a particular school than a ranking.

Only personal experience can determine if a school will be a good fit, but college rankings are helpful if students and parents know how to use them properly — as a tool at the start of their college research. We recommend that students don’t look at where their favorite college ranks on the list but rather, at the criteria used to rank the schools. Create your own rankings by choosing the factors that are most important to you and then looking at schools using those factors as a measure. How do the schools rank based upon your personal criteria? Students should seek out and become familiar with the schools that fit their criteria. Ideally, a student will use his or her criteria to create their own personalized list with 10 first choices.


Parents and students should go beyond college rankings and have their own experiences with the colleges. Visit the schools’ campuses, in-person or virtually, look at the courses offered at the schools and the professors who teach them, find out what resources are available on campus and what activities your teen can participate in on and off campus and learn about internship and career placement programs. You can also learn about colleges through others’ experiences by talking to former students or your high school alumni who are currently attending the colleges or speaking with college alumni who live in your area.

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to choosing a college. It’s a personal decision that should be based on the factors that are most meaningful to the student. Once a student gets to know a college through intensive research, visits and other experiences, then the student can decide if that school will be a good fit academically, socially and financially, regardless of where it falls on a publication’s ranking.