College Rankings in the US: Which Site to Use?
Each year as the college decision deadlines approach, new rankings are released in mass numbers from numerous websites.
How can you know which ones to trust and which ones to ignore?
We’ve compiled a description of a few of the most prominent sites to help you decide which is best for you.
Prominent US College Ranking Sites
Arguably the most used and popular ranking site on the internet, U.S. News & World Report has been ranking colleges since 1983.
They rank by four major categories: National Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges, and also have some smaller rankings based off of popular majors.
The website’s ranking system is based on multiple different factors that they list out. They break their methodology down in a series of information, each given different amounts of weight.
The categories with the highest percentages are “Outcomes,” described as graduation and retention rates; social mobility; graduation rate performance, “Faculty Resources,” which is based on class sizes, student-faculty ratio, and education of faculty, and “Expert Opinion,” a slightly more mysterious and questionable category that takes into account the opinions of presidents, provosts, and admissions deans.
As one of the three primary publishers of the Common Data Set, U.S. News & World Report has direct access to lots of information regarding each college, but due to the popularity and influence of their lists, colleges have been shown to misrepresent numbers in order to increase their rankings.
While U.S. News & World Report is a valuable and respected tool for giving students general information about colleges, there are many reasons to be hesitant before applying to colleges based on their list.
A more recent addition to the college rankings business, Forbes releases a yearly list of the top 650 undergraduate institutions based on a “consumer-centric approach,” according to Caroline Howard, Director of Editorial Operations, Forbes.
Just as Howard said, the methodology for their ranking skews heavily towards the students themselves, heavily weighting factors such as alumni salary, student debt, and the student experience.
These measurements may not capture a complete picture as certain programs, such as finance or economics may lead to higher-paying jobs, while a top art program may not achieve the same monetary success.
Additionally, allowing student debt to account for 20% of a school’s ranking heavily favors institutions that attract a wealthier student body rather than just those that give out financial aid.
A key difference in the Forbes list when compared to many others, is that they have chosen to omit an institution’s acceptance rate, endowment, and freshmen SAT/ACT scores, all numbers that Forbes believes, “say far more about a school’s ‘prestige’ than its actual effectiveness.”
Furthermore, Forbes takes into account a school’s score from previous years in addition to their current score, preventing the common variability that may occur in other lists due to methodology changes and not the colleges themselves.
Another especially popular site for college rankings is Niche, which posts dozens of lists from Best Colleges to Hardest to Get in.
Their filter options are quite extensive, allowing students to search by “area of study,” type of student (HBCU, All-Women, All-Men), testing scores, and more, providing students with a tool to become familiar with colleges that may fit into their desires.
Niche’s biggest advantage over other ranking sites is their enormous number of reviews from college students themselves.
The site has over 180,000 college reviews from real students and heavily incorporates those reviews into their rankings. However, it may be just as if not more useful to simply read the reviews on colleges you’re interested in yourself.
It’s often possible for rankings to become skewed as students will rate their own institution ore highly as compared to others out of either rivalry or simply not enough exposure to other schools.
Reading the reviews that inform these rankings directly will allow you to decide for yourself whether or not a student is being biased or sincere.
Thankfully, while scrolling through Niche’s seemingly endless categories for lists, at the top of each page they do include a link to their methodology for that specific list, so you always know what is being accounted for in the rankings you’re looking at.
In addition to their test prep services, the Princeton Review also has its own college rankings list, however it is much different than other websites.
Princeton Review has determined the best 385 colleges but does not rank them in a traditional sense, and instead simply lists them all in alphabetical order.
The reason they give for their lack of number rankings is “all 385 schools in the book are academically outstanding,” and that is true to an extent.
But, it also seems as though this strategy is done to promote sales of their book version of this list, which features the top 20 schools out of those 385 in 68 different categories.
In addition, they could also be trying to entice you into purchasing their book by giving a sneak peek of the schools that will be listed, but nothing beyond that.
Do College Rankings Really Matter?
One of the major problems with college ranking lists as a whole is that they promote a single-minded thought process where each school is inferior or superior to another purely based on the number next to their name.
In reality, each school has certain factors that make it a better option over others for specific students…it is up to the student to do their own research and find out more about the schools they’re interested in.
No one school is the best academically in every category and every major.
And it is highly unlikely that one school will check all the boxes for every student.
Rankings should serve as a baseline for subsequent research conducted by the students.
College rankings can serve as a launching point towards finding the school that is right for you, but that decision should come after investigating many important details: talking with current students, taking an in-person or virtual tour, and much more.
For those students and parents less interested in rankings and more interested in comparing hard core data about colleges, check out our College Insights search tool.
This tool pulls together data from multiple sources in one place, saving families hours of research.
Give it a try for free and see how easy it is to narrow down which colleges can be the most generous to your student with either need-based aid or merit scholarships.
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