Should You Trust College Rankings?

Should you only apply for top ranked colleges? College rankings should be used for research and not decision-making.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

June 19, 2022

Should You Trust College Rankings?
College rankings can be an asset, but don’t depend on them too much.
College rankings carry a lot of clout in the college search and admissions process. Schools make headlines for being the most prestigious or the best value, but should college rankings influence where you attend college? College rankings are not inherently bad. In fact, they are very useful to the college admissions process. They help you get to know colleges that you may not have heard of otherwise. After all, you can find a rankings list for just about every component of the college experience these days, helping you to find colleges that have exactly what you’re looking for. However, like any facet of the college search, you should not base your entire decision on this one factor. Because of their ability to create tantalizing headlines or bragging points for top ranked colleges, they can become more important to the decision-making process than they should.
At the same time, you need to keep in mind that each rankings system gets the data for creating said rankings in very different ways. You should go in knowing that not all rankings are created equal.

What are the Most Popular College Rankings?

There are a variety of publications that offer college rankings, from The Wall Street Journal to Forbes Magazine. Like we mentioned earlier, college rankings make great headlines.
As you research college rankings, though, you’ll find that there are a few resources that are more popular than others. Each of the rankings below pull their data from different sources, making them great examples of where and how they collect data, which in turn can help you better weight how important they should be to your college decision.

U.S. News College Rankings

The U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings have been a staple to the college admissions process for years. Their rankings list is one that schools regularly tout if they happen to fall into the top 10, 25 or 50 within a given field that they’d love to highlight. According to U.S. News, the rankings are in their 37th year of publishing with the 2022 Best Colleges. To compile data for their rankings, they use their own research from years’ past, user feedback, discussions with schools and higher education experts, literature reviews, current trends, availability of new data, and working with deans and researchers at higher education conferences.
They determine their rankings based on “17 indicators of academic quality” only, which means they are not looking at a college’s athletics, social life, or student wellbeing. Essentially, they are great rankings for evaluating the type of educational experience you will receive within the classroom at colleges you’re interested in.

The Princeton Review Rankings

The Princeton Review is known for cultivating lists like Top Party Schools, Happiest Students, and Students that Study the Most. Though it somewhat focuses on academics on each college campus, it also sheds light on athletics, facilities, and student quality of life. The Princeton Review methodology works a little differently. They survey students at the 386 colleges that are featured in their The Best 387 Colleges book, which means that their lists are comprised by student opinion rather than data from the school. In the survey they ask about the following, as stated by The Princeton Review: “Our student survey has 85 questions in four sections. We ask students about: 1) their school's academics/administration, 2) life at their college, 3) their fellow students, and 4) themselves. Students answer by selecting one of five answer choices that range across a grid or scale. The answer choice headers might range from "Strongly Agree" to "Strongly Disagree" or "Excellent" to "Poor": some are percentages with ranges from "0–20%" to "81–100%."”

Niche College Rankings

Finally, Niche offers college rankings for its users. Again, they use a different approach in their methodology, but it can be summed up as combination of the prior two. They take data from the U.S. Department of Education as well as reviews from students and alumni at colleges and universities. With that, their rankings are data and opinion-driven, providing a very well-rounded view of each school. Similar to The Princeton Review, their rankings cover more than just the academic side of a school. Niche College Rankings include Best Value, Best Student Life, and Most Diverse campuses, to name a few.

Pros of Using College Rankings in the College Search

College rankings can be very helpful to the college search process. As stated earlier, they can help you discover schools that you otherwise may not know about. With these lists, you can explore niche qualities that you want in a college. For example, you can find colleges ranked by their political leanings or learn whether their LGBTQ friendly. Some college rankings also offer insight into which colleges provide the best education by field of study. You can also use college rankings to compare schools. If you have several colleges on your search list that seem similar, you can utilize the data from rankings to see if there is a better fit for you. Finally, the data provided by college rankings help you determine your chances of gaining admission into a particular school. Just like the rankings provide data about a school, they also deliver a picture of the type of student they admit. You’ll be able to see average test scores and GPA of applicants as well as hear student opinion in some cases about admissions experiences.

Cons of Using College Rankings in the College Search

There is such a thing as relying too much on college rankings, however. While they are great for getting an idea about where to apply, they shouldn’t be driving your decisions. For instance, many students will only apply to the best colleges in the country, according to a rankings list. They are doing themselves a disservice when there are thousands of reputable colleges with an abundance of offerings that may not be in the top 10, top 50, or top 100, for that matter. The best way to determine whether or not a college is the best fit for you is to visit the college and have conversations with admissions officers and current students. Through these experiences and conversations, you’ll get a complete picture of a college. At the end of the day, rankings are just data, and you need more than that to make such a major life decision. Use rankings in your research. Find colleges that sound interesting. Then, explore them in-person and establish relationships with individuals who have a firm grasp of what the college experience at that school is really like. Armed with that information, you’ll be able to choose a college that is not just the best according to a rankings system, but that is best for you.

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