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How to Use College Rankings to Make Decisions

Thu, Oct 09, 2014 @ 10:05 AM

Popular College Ranking ListsPopular College Rankings Lists: Don't Pay Attention to the Ranking – Look at the Data Available

In the world of college admissions, one of the most controversial , and highly-debated tools advertised as a way to determine the “best” colleges are college rankings lists. An increasing number of news outlets and publications claim to have “cracked the code” in terms of determining which colleges are worth attending, however, what rankings fail to convey is the importance of personal fit. 

At IvyWise, we encourage students to apply to the colleges that are the best academic, social, and financial fits – what’s best for one student isn’t always going to be the right choice for another. The same also applies to college rankings. Lists are not created equal, and a school that’s #1 on one list could be nowhere near the top 50 in another. Here’s an example of popular rankings lists and the differences in the top five schools. 


US News


Business Insider


Money Magazine

Washington Monthly





Harvey Mudd


UC – San Diego





Naval Academy

Webb Institute

UC - Riverside




Cal Tech

Cal Tech


UC - Berkeley





Stevens Tech


Texas A&M








So why do so many people pay attention to rankings? Simply put, people like to quantify the unquantifiable – hence the plethora of college rankings lists with varying methodologies. The truth is, not one college rankings list has it right – and none ever will. However, there is a benefit in these lists for families going through the college search process – it just requires a little work. 

While no one should ever base their college decision on where a college falls on a rankings list, families can use the data that different lists collect to make informed decisions, or even create their own college ranking method.

Examine the Data and Methodology – Not the Number on the List

The one great thing about college rankings lists is that someone else has already done the hard work for you by collecting data on graduation rates, job placements, selectivity, financial aid, post graduate salaries, etc. Depending on your higher education goals – whether it’s to insure a great ROI, quick job placement, or support through graduation – there’s a list out there that has the information you’re looking for. 

For example, one of the most popular rankings lists, US News and World Report Best Colleges, has several factors it considers when determining final rankings. While almost a quarter of the ranking is determined by “undergraduate academic reputation” (giving Ivy League schools a distinct advantage), there are more useful factors that are considered including retention, faculty resources, and alumni giving – which are strong indicators of student satisfaction. 

Another popular college ranking list, Forbes America’s Top Colleges, is different from US News in that its methodology focuses heavily on post-grad success and includes data on student loan debt, a factor to consider when evaluating a school’s financial fit. Families can look at each college on the list and get an idea of the average cost, as well as the average amount of grant money students are awarded and the average amount of loans students take out. 

Recently, LinkedIn launched its own rankings tool, focusing on career paths and ranking colleges based on field of study. These rankings are based on data from LinkedIn’s users, and can be helpful for students exploring schools based on their intended major or those whose main goals is to work for a certain company. 

Other rankings lists that include data that could be helpful for students deciding where to apply to college include: 

It’s easy to look at a list and think “this is the best school because someone says it’s #1,” but remember that the college search should be about what you think is most important, not a publication’s opinion. Take college rankings with a grain of salt, but don’t be afraid to dive into the data and consider only the criteria in each list that is most important to you. 

Your final decision about where to apply and ultimately enroll should come from multiple sources, not just a rankings list. Don’t forget to do your research, talk to admissions officers, alumni, counselors, and current students, read relevant blogs, and visit the campus! In the end, deciding on your best fit-college will come from your own assessment.


Written by IvyWise

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