Should I Consider Rankings When Choosing a College?

No matter where you are in the college admission process, you have heard that college rankings are out. If you’re applying to colleges right now, you’ve probably been inundated with emails from colleges boasting about their rankings. If you’re not on any college mailing lists yet, you’ve probably seen segments about rankings on your local news or posts on social media. While the rankings can be interesting, should rankings be something you consider when choosing colleges for your list?

One of the most common questions I would receive from students when I was an admission professional was, “what is your rank?” If the ranking of my college were not high enough, many students would walk away and not listen to anything else my college had to offer. I would usually say, “but we offer small class sizes, generous financial aid, and an amazing retention rate.” However, none of this mattered to students if the college was not in the top 10 or 20. Below are four reasons why I believe rankings should not play a big role when you’re considering colleges.

1. High Rankings Does Not Mean a Good Fit For You

Sure the college is in the top 10, but is it the right fit for you? Not necessarily. The most important thing when choosing a college is making sure it is a good academic, social, and financial fit. Ranked number five is great, but if it doesn’t have the major or academic atmosphere you need or want, it doesn’t make sense to choose the college. In addition, choosing a college that is a good financial fit is important. While the majority of college students take out loans, students should not go into major debt to attend a college that is ranked higher than others. Some highly ranked colleges might have generous financial aid, but make sure you do your research before committing to a college just because it has a high ranking.

2. Some of the Rankings Comes Down Popularity

22.5 percent of the U.S. News ranking methodology comes from academic reputation. High school counselors and college officials from across the country were invited to take a survey on their thoughts on the colleges. There are two words to pay attention to when talking about this part of the college rankings.

  • Invited – Just because they are invited does not mean everyone actually takes the survey. According to U.S. News, only 40.4 percent of college officials responded. And, only seven percent of the counselors responded.
  • Survey – Can you imagine how long this survey is? The person filling out the survey will be asked about hundreds of colleges.

If the survey taker had never heard of the college, they can choose, “don’t know” on the survey. Or, they might score the college lower because they might think, “I’ve never hard of this college so it must not be good.” Also, think about how long this survey is. The survey taker might start off putting a lot of thought into the score they give to a college. However, after scoring 100 colleges, will they still put in the same amount of thought, or will start rushing through the survey so they will finally be done?

3. Some of the Rankings Come From Self-Reported Data

As an Admission Director, I was responsible for providing the data that was used in the ranking methodology. One of the pieces of data that is used is selectivity. We were asked to provide the number of applications and the number of students who were offered admission. U.S. News takes these numbers to determine the acceptance rate. However, not all colleges are answering these questions with the same numbers. Some colleges might only include the number of completed applications, while others might list the full number of application they received, even if the student did not submit other documentation. The majority of colleges will not make a decision on an application unless they receive all required documents (transcript, test scores, recommendations, etc.). Can you see how a college’s acceptance rate might seem low when they include all application received, even if the student did not submit everything required? Depending on the number the college uses, their acceptance rate could be 60 percent of 90 percent. Remember, the lower the acceptance rate, the more points the college will receive towards their ranking score. Unfortunately, not until all colleges provide the same numbers and use the same definitions, we can’t use this criteria. Plus, why is a college with a lower acceptance rate better? It does not necessarily mean they offer better education. It just means they received more applications and there are many reasons a student applies to a college that has nothing to do with education, such as location or no application fee.

4. Other Overrated Criteria

Faculty resources makes up 20 percent of the ranking score. This includes faculty pay, class size, proportion of faculty who are full-time, and the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their field. Colleges in areas with higher costs of living will have to pay their faculty members a little more so they can afford living in the area. Should they have a higher ranking for that reason? In addition, just because a professor is teaching part-time does not mean they are less qualified. There could be many other reasons they are not full-time. My favorite professor of all time was a part-time professor. However, she was published, known in her field, and spent a lot of time with her students. Another thing that is considered in the ranking methodology is alumni giving. However, this does not take into account the type of jobs students have after graduation. Not all students want to go into a field that will pay very well and will allow them to give back to their alma mater. For example, many students might want to go into education or the non-profit field. These professions are not known for high pay, but bring a lot of happiness to the individuals. Do you care how many alumni are giving money to the college? Probably not.

Rankings are fun to look at, but they don’t need to play a part in your college search process. There are amazing colleges all over the country that provide wonderful education, opportunities, and outcomes. Just because a college is not ranked high in the rankings does not mean they are not a great college you.

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