Can You Trust College Rankings?

College rankings are in the spotlight again. Last week, officials at California’s Claremont McKenna College admitted to submitting inflated SAT scores since 2005 to publications like U.S. News & World Report to boost the school’s position in the magazine’s college rankings.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Last year, Iona College in New York acknowledged it had provided false data for years, which bumped its ranking from about 50 to 30 in its category. Other academic institutions, including law schools, have pulled such stunts, too.

How college ranking methods stack up

College rankings have long been a lightning rod for controversy. Critics say they are subjective and imprecise, and some argue that comparing enormous public universities to small liberal arts colleges is like comparing apples to oranges.

On the other hand, students overwhelmed by the college search can use rankings to compare schools at a glance based on certain common factors. They also can make you aware of colleges that meet your criteria but aren’t on your radar.

Although U.S. News and World Report may be the best known ranking, others include Kiplinger’s, Forbes and The Princeton Review. These publishers employ different methodologies, but they all rely heavily on feedback from the schools, including internal and external faculty and administrators, and students. Most weigh their own combination of factors like undergraduate academic reputation, graduation rates, competitiveness, financial resources and student debt.

What college rankings can offer

College rankings can be a useful tool in your college search, but they shouldn’t be your first stop. Rather than first looking at rankings, start by listing your priorities and needs, such as location, size, cost, financial aid and degree programs. Then begin looking at different schools, creating a list of ones that match.

Among the factors you may want to consider are:

  1. Type: two-year, four-year or online colleges, public or private
  2. Size: number of undergraduates and faculty members, faculty accessibility
  3. Location: proximity to home and what interests you, setting (i.e., urban vs. rural)
  4. Major: availability, academic department reputation
  5. Cost and financial aid: tuition, housing, school aid offerings and criteria
  6. Campus life: opportunities for socializing and activities
  7. Sports and extracurriculars: availability of programs you’d like to get involved in
  8. Housing: on-campus vs. off-campus availability and options
  9. Diversity: availability of student organizations, ethnic and/or religious groups

Once you have a list of potential schools that match your needs, then it’s time to look at admission criteria, retention and graduation rates, and rankings to determine how your choices compare. Keep in mind that in terms of quality, schools ranked within about 10 spots of each other likely are extremely close, if not equivalent.

By focusing on the broad picture rather than one aspect, you can find the school that’s No. 1 on the only ranking that matters — your own.

Methodologies and Sources