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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Tracewell

How to wisely use college rankings

College rankings are a joke, according to many experts and pundits, like Frank Bruni who writes on education for the New York Times. We all love lists, and they’re not completely without merit, but there’s so much more to understanding a college than can be contained in a top 10 list. Basically, don’t panic and obsess over the college rankings or place too much emphasis on the clout or prestige that appears to come with a top spot on the list.

The rankings nourish the myth that the richest, most selective colleges have some corner on superior education; don’t adequately recognize public institutions that prioritize access and affordability; and do insufficient justice to the particular virtues of individual campuses. —Frank Bruni, New York Times

College choices are unique to each student, and a list of what one student needs won’t match what someone else needs. US News & World Report can’t report on your specific values, interests, academic ability, degree programs, financial costs, location, size, campus resources, and more. Your rankings will necessarily look different from other students.

Ask these questions about the rankings, such as US News & World Report annual rankings:

  • Is it relevant? Or is it marketing?

  • What data is used to compile the report?

  • What data is meaningful to YOU?

  • Who are the stakeholders in the data?

Why is one college the best college for all students? Is a harp player really better off going to Harvard than Julliard? Is a criminal justice major really better off at The University of Michigan (which has no CJ program) than Michigan State (which does)? —Patrick O’Connor, Counselors’ Corner

An interesting bit of background on US News rankings is that one of the major factors in the rankings is how the top administrators at other colleges have ranked each other, making it quite subjective. What college president actually knows all the important details about their peer colleges? I wouldn't call this "expert opinion" — maybe a popularity contest. The other categories that make up the rankings are the six-year graduation rates, faculty resources, the financial resources of the college, student excellence, and alumni giving.

So what should students do? Perhaps look at the rankings as a tip sheet, a starting place for further research. And expand your search into other types of rankings and resources. Two resources you shouldn't miss are GradReports and Nessie.

GradReports lets you explore the best colleges by major and starting salaries for graduates of various programs like business, nursing, and computer science. We appreciate that the rankings differ depending on your major.

Do elite colleges matter? In many programs, less selective colleges perform just as well as elite colleges. For example, the top three highest-earning schools for civil engineering majors are Stevens Institute of Technology ($72,700), Santa Clara University ($72,500) and San Jose State University ($72,100), topping more prestigious schools such as Notre Dame ($69,200), Cornell University ($67,100), and Columbia University ($66,000). — GradReports

Students should not be asking "what's the best ranked school," but rather, "what's my expected salary if I graduate from a particular school with a particular major." GradReports is using the Department of Education data from the College Scorecard tool, which is a compilation of data from actual student earnings. We love the College Scorecard and highly recommend you check it out! You'll find data on college graduation rates, student debt and repayment, earnings, and more.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), commonly known as “Nessie,” provides a comprehensive survey of college students, not administrators with financial or power motivations at stake, giving you an honest view of the student perspective about their academic experiences at their college/university.

Unlike the US News rankings, the NSSE rankings are based on the student perspective of things that should be super important to you! Like, how much will I learn? Will I get to collaborate with other students? Are professors and faculty helpful outside of class?

The questionnaire collects information from first-year and senior college students across five categories: (1) participation in dozens of educationally purposeful activities, (2) institutional requirements and the challenging nature of coursework, (3) perceptions of the college environment, (4) estimates of educational and personal growth since starting college, and (5) background and demographic information. You can search for participating institutions here.

The one BIG problem with NSSE results is this caveat: "Please note that our agreements with schools that participate in NSSE prevent us from reporting the results for individual colleges and universities..." However, by contacting the admissions office of the college you're interested in you can access the data. It's really a bummer that this invaluable data isn't more readily available, but if you do the work to get your hands on the survey results, it's worth your time.

The NSSE Pocket Guide to Choosing a College is also a great resource for students in looking beyond rankings to find their best college fit. Go outside the usual data and talk to current students, try to sit in on classes, check out the student publications and flyers posted around campus, and get a feel for the place. And ask a ton of questions! Check-in with yourself: do I feel a sense of belonging here? Are there supports in place that are meaningful to me? Am I learning what I hope to learn?

Students should be asking colleges the kinds of questions that affect how much and how well they will learn at this particular institution — not necessarily the number assigned by US News & World Report. How much do students study and how rigorous are their assignments? How much writing is expected? How often do students interact with their teachers in meaningful ways? How often do students work together on class projects?

Using the typical "Best College" rankings to find the one perfect college for you is a shortcut you may not want to take. Being aware of how that data is compiled, and what other resources are available, is so important in your college search. There is typically not one perfect fit, but a range of choices that a student must sift through based on the data that is most important and relevant to YOU and your future goals. Good luck in your search!

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