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 College Rankings: What Do They Really Mean?

Every year, various magazines publish their college rankings issues. These rankings often get a lot of attention from the media, colleges and college-bound students and their parents. In fact, these rankings may be the first thing students think about when beginning their college research and even when ultimately deciding where to attend. But should these rankings really have any influence on what college you choose? What are they really telling you?

But just because a magazine says that a particular college is number one doesn't mean that it would be a good fit for you. Every student looks for different criteria in a college—criteria that may not be considered by a magazine writer looking for a hot story. You may find that the college of your dreams is ranked number one, number 10, or not at all, depending on which list you are looking at. There are four major college rankings and guides, each of which uses different criteria and multiple resources when determining their rankings:

  • U.S. News & World Report, which uses selectivity, alumni giving and opinions of high school guidance counselors
  • Forbes, which emphasizes post-graduate success, student satisfaction and student debt
  • The Princeton Review, which ranks schools into 62 different categories from the academic to the arcane
  • Newsweek, which consists of 12 lists, from things like “Most Desirable” or “Schools for Brainiacs” and ranks the top 25 in each, also taking into account the academic qualifications of their admitted students and the school’s endowment.

Colleges can be ranked very differently on different lists due to the criteria used, not the characteristics of the school itself. 

"The detriment comes when students and families confuse rankings and/or selectivity with quality," says a counselor for continuing education at Community High School (MI) and director of college counseling at the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit. "They often have little in common."

What these lists can do is provide a good starting point for researching different colleges and universities, and even help you discover schools you have not heard of before. So go ahead and read the college rankings magazines. Many times, the articles accompanying the rankings are full of solid advice for students and their families. These lists can also provide a good starting point for researching different schools, and also help you discover schools you have not heard of before. 

“The college choice is all about match and fit, and before students can begin to decide which college is best for them, they need to spend considerable reflective time assessing what they’re looking for,” says Phyllis Gill, associate director of college guidance at Providence Day School (NC). Gill recommends students use the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), where many colleges that participate post the comments on their Web sites and provide a very interesting look at schools.

Like these lists, college rankings are in the eyes of the beholder. Your top 10 college list may be completely different from any magazine's—or even from your best friend's list.  So don't take the rankings themselves too seriously—the most important question is what college is the right fit for YOU?

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