College Rankings

How much can you trust college rankings?

Each year, resources like the U.S. News & World Report provide rankings of colleges across America as a means of providing a way to learn more about the schools and helping you narrow down your college choice. While many find them helpful, how reliable are these lists? How full of a picture do they present?

To calculate its annual rankings, U.S. News & World Report uses a formula based on two ingredients: quantitative measures that indicate academic quality, and its own subjective but researched view about what matters in education.

It works like this: U.S. News first places each school into a category based on its mission (for example, research university or liberal arts college) and, in some cases, its location (North, South, Midwest and West). National universities, which focus on research and offer several doctoral programs, are ranked separately from national liberal arts colleges. Regional universities and regional colleges are compared with other schools in the same group and region.

Next, data is solicited from each school in up to 16 areas related to academic excellence. Indicators of academic quality fall into seven broad categories. Each indicator is then assigned a weight (expressed as a percentage) based on judgments about which measures of quality matter the most.

  1. Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%)
  2. Retention (22.5%)
  3. Faculty resources (20%)
  4. Student selectivity (12.5%)
  5. Financial resources (10%)
  6. Graduation rate performance (7.5%)
  7. Alumni giving rate (5%)

Third, colleges are ranked based on their composite weighted score and the numerical rank of roughly the top three-fourths of schools in each category is published.

If institutions don’t require SAT or ACT test scores in admissions decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants, they are considered Unranked and listed separately by category. And, in a few cases, schools are Unranked if too few respondents to the peer assessment survey provided a rating.

Confusing, huh? The bottom line is this: while these lists can be helpful, they should only be viewed as part of the picture and not the whole story. You can learn some valuable information from them, but they should not be used as your sole resource when deciding to what schools you’ll be applying. Think of it like this: college ranking systems don’t capture the “best” colleges any more than America’s Top 40 picks the “best” songs.

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