If you're like most people, you flip to your prospective school when you see the college ranking editions of U.S. News, The Princeton Review and other publications. We all want to see how our choices measure up. But what do those numbers mean? How big of a role should a college's ranking play when selecting a school?
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Want to find out how your SAT or ACT score stacks up? What about tuition? Class size
? Acceptance rate? College ranking magazines and Web sites make that sort of numeric data easy to quantify. "A benefit of perusing our rankings online is that you can choose the key criteria that matter most to you and rank your choices according to those criteria," says Rich Folkers, director of media relations for U.S. News & World Report which publishes "."
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Just beginning your college search? Look at the rankings in areas most important to you and use those statistics to narrow your search. For instance, if a college's student-to-teacher ratio is 30:1 and you'd prefer smaller class sizes, the right ranking can quickly show you which schools match your preference.
Not all rankings are filled with statistics. The Princeton Review's irreverent ranking separates colleges into less traditional categories. For example, you can see schools ranked by demographics ("From the Monochromatic Institute to Diversity University"), or by social scene ("Is the Town Funsville or Dullsville?").
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College rankings can also be useful in expanding your number of prospective colleges
. You might discover a school you weren't aware of that's similar to your first choice.
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Remember, no matter the source, rankings are based on other people's opinions and priorities. So it's best to make college rankings one part of your overall search, not the centerpiece.
U.S. News and World weighs various qualities it thinks compose a good college. According to its Web site, retention (the number of freshmen who return to campus the following year and go on to graduate) accounts for 20 percent of a college's overall score. Would you place 20 percent of your college decision on this statistic?
The Princeton Review uses results from polls of current college students, so their results are composites of students' opinions. If College ABC is voted as having the best "Major Sorority/Fraternity Scene," that doesn't automatically mean it has the sort of Greek life
you're seeking. Conversely, it doesn't mean College ABC lacks a social scene outside of the Greek system.
Another misconception is that a sizable shift in ranking means that a college got significantly better or worse. That's not necessarily the case. "If you look closely, those changes are often very small differences in their overall scores," says Folkers. "A major change of academic quality clearly doesn't happen overnight."
Still, students and parents can jump to the wrong conclusions. "[Ranking colleges] is too complicated an issue," says Paul Marthers, dean of admissions at . Since 1995, Reed College has abstained from participating in the U.S. News annual ranking. "It's hard to compare accurately one college to another. How can you quantify education?"
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There are many qualities about attending a college that simply cannot be analyzed through a ranking system, like the environment of the surrounding town, or whether the professors will inspire you intellectually. "If the ratings could add a measure that can quantify the educational experience, and do it accurately, that would something we would consider," says Marthers.
Folkers agrees there is more to picking a college
than crunching numbers. "There are intangibles about campuses that can best be answered by visiting and talking to alumni or current students," he says. "It's not just about a number ranking. Certainly, a ranking can be a valuable tool in picking a school, but not the only tool."
It All Comes Down To You
Keep a proper perspective when studying college rankings. Remember that the most important thing is to find a school that fits your goals and aspirations. "Students should look at the [academic] programs, at the atmosphere," says Marthers. "Do those things bring a level of excitement to the student? The school that everyone says is so great may not be the best fit."