Should You Trust the U.S. News College Rankings?

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College rankings often play a big role in the college decision process for high school students. They influence the prestige and name recognition of schools, where students apply, and where students ultimately decide to attend. The most popular source among these college rankings is U.S. News and World Report.

But are we putting too much trust in college rankings like U.S. News?

College rankings don’t give you the complete picture of any university. While you can use rankings as a guideline or a source of information, you shouldn’t make them a major factor in your decision. Choose a college based solely on rankings, and you may find that it’s absolutely not a fit for you.

How U.S. News Ranks Colleges

Groupings

U.S. News starts by grouping colleges according to “academic mission” in order to make the most useful and valid comparisons.

This means that you shouldn’t compare a school in one group to a school in another group based on rankings. They’re too different; it would be “like comparing apples and oranges.” If you want to compare schools across groups, you’ll have to look at individual factors (like retention rates and financial resources) instead of looking at the ranking itself.

Schools in the top 75% of each group are numerically ranked. U.S. News places the remaining schools in each group in the “second tier,” listing them in alphabetical order with no ranking.

The four main groupings are:

  • National Universities- Offer undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs and emphasize faculty research.
  • National Liberal Arts Colleges- Focus mostly on undergraduate education, with at least 50% of degrees awarded in the arts and sciences.
  • Regional Universities- Offer undergraduate programs, some master’s programs, and very few (if any) doctoral programs. These schools are ranked within four subcategories: North, South, Midwest, and West.
  • Regional Colleges- Focus on undergraduate education and grant fewer than 50% of degrees in the liberal arts. Some schools in this category mostly award two-year associate degrees. Like regional universities, regional colleges are ranked within the subcategories North, South, Midwest, and West.

Ranking Factors and Weights

U.S. News uses a mathematical ranking system consisting of 17 ranking factors. The system changes often to adapt to changes in higher education. The ranking factors fall into the following key categories:

  • Graduation and Retention Rates
  • Social Mobility
  • Graduation Rate Performance
  • Undergraduate Academic Reputation
  • Faculty Resources
  • Student Selectivity
  • Financial Resources Per Student
  • Average Alumni Giving Rate
  • Graduate Indebtedness (new category for the 2021 ranking list)

Each factor is given a percentage weight. The chart below examines the 17 ranking factors and the percentage weights associated with each factor.

Ranking FactorWeight (National and Liberal Arts Universities)Weight (Regional Universities and Colleges)
Average six-year graduation rate17.6%17.6%
Average first-year student retention rate4.4%4.4%
Pell Grant graduation rates2.5%2.5%
Pell Grant graduation rate performance2.5%2.5%
Graduation rate performance8%8%
Class size index8%8%
Faculty compensation7%7%
Percent faculty with terminal degree in their field3%3%
Percent faculty that is full time1%1%
Student-faculty ratio1%1%
SAT and ACT scores5%5%
High school class standing in top 10%2%0%
High school class standing in top 25%0%2%
Financial resources per student10%10%
Undergraduate academic reputation (peer assessment survey)20%20%
Average alumni giving rate3%3%
Graduate indebtedness total3%3%
Graduate indebtedness proportion with debt2%2%
TOTAL100%100%

What About Other College Rankings?

Although U.S. News is often considered the gold standard for college ranking lists, it’s not the only one. Other ranking lists include Princeton Review, Forbes, and a wide variety of college ranking websites.

Other college rankings use a similar process, with some differences in ranking factors and percentage weights. But all these lists have one thing in common: They don’t give you enough information to pick the best school for you.

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Why College Rankings Fall Short

U.S. News and other college ranking lists use sound methodology, and they provide useful information. There’s nothing wrong with using college rankings as a helpful guide throughout your college decision process.

In the end, however, the best college is the one that’s the right fit for you. It should match your interests, goals, learning style, preferences, and personality. You should feel comfortable, happy, and inspired when you’re on campus. These extremely important factors can’t be measured and assigned a percentage weight.

U.S. News itself acknowledges this fact, calling its rankings “a good starting point.” Its website states “The best school for each student, experts say, is one that will most completely meet his or her needs, which go beyond academics.”

Here are a few shortcomings to keep in mind as you consult college rankings during your search.

Overemphasizes Prestige

“Prestige” refers to a school’s reputation and overall “wow” factor. When you think of prestigious schools, think of the Ivy League or other impressive, highly recognizable names in higher ed. These universities appeal to many students because they offer a great education and look fantastic on a resume. Who wouldn’t want to casually slip the phrase “When I attended Harvard,” into a job interview?

But prestige isn’t everything, and it’s perhaps overly emphasized in college rankings. Academic reputation (in the form of ratings from academic peer groups) is weighted 20% by U.S. News. Other ranking factors like student selectivity also correlate with prestige.

To some extent, college ranking lists are lists of the most prestigious universities. For some students, these universities aren’t a good fit. The highly rigorous and competitive environment is not for everyone. Some students also find that the most prestigious schools don’t offer a solid balance of academics and social life.

And remember that even if a school is impressive, it’s not necessarily the best place for you to reach your goals. A lesser-known school might have a program that’s perfect for your needs, so don’t overlook the smaller fish in the higher education pond.

Gives Private Schools an Advantage

Private schools are generally smaller and more selective, so they rank higher than public schools on the U.S. News list. Most private schools have smaller class sizes, more student selectivity, and better retention rates than their larger public counterparts.

As a result, the U.S. News ranking list can make it look like private schools are better. Private schools offer plenty of advantages, but so do public schools! Public schools are typically more affordable and have a greater variety of programs and activities to experience.

Many public schools have a more diverse student body and a thriving athletic and social scene that some students prefer. So, private schools may look better in the rankings, but are they actually better for you? It all depends, once again, on your personal preferences.

Unranked Schools Aren’t Necessarily “Bad”

To receive a ranking from U.S. News, colleges must fit their criteria. This means that schools remain unranked if they don’t use standardized tests in admissions decisions, don’t receive enough responses on the peer assessment survey, or don’t have regional accreditation. Very small schools with fewer than 200 students don’t qualify for a ranking either.

For these reasons, around 150 colleges receive the label “unranked.” They’re listed alphabetically at the end of each category. Students browsing the ranking lists will likely overlook these “unranked” schools. Keep in mind that these schools simply don’t fit the methodology used by U.S. News. Of course, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a good fit for you.

Doesn’t Factor in Quality of Life

The U.S. News college rankings are all about results. They measure graduation and retention rates, graduate indebtedness, and overall reputation. They also factor in selectivity, class size, and financial resources.

While this is important information, it doesn’t tell you anything about quality of life. Will you enjoy your time at the school? What sort of activities are available for students? Are students happy there? How’s the food in the dining hall?

When you apply to colleges, they want to grasp the “big picture” of who you are. Yes, they consider your stats (test scores, GPA, and class rank), but they also ask you to write a personal essay. Some even require an interview.

As a prospective college student, you are much more than your measurable achievements. The same concept applies to the colleges you’re considering. You can’t only look at statistics. You have to look at the big picture—and a college ranking list can’t give you that.

How to Use the College Rankings Wisely

Here’s what college ranking lists can give you:

  • An idea of the relative quality of education offered by various schools
  • Easily scannable information to help you compare schools
  • Information that’s difficult to find on your own (or time-consuming to research)

So, think of college rankings like U.S. News as a way to gather information about the quality of the educational experience. Remember that this is only ONE factor that should go into your college decision.

To use the rankings wisely, don’t look solely at the numerical ranking itself. Take a deeper dive into the data. Here are some examples:

  • Scan the test scores at different schools to assess your chances of admission. This information can help you separate your choices into reach, target, and safety schools.
  • Review data on class sizes and student-faculty ratios to determine how personal (or impersonal) classes are at various schools. How much personalized help and attention are you likely to receive? If small classes are important to you, for instance, use this data to help you narrow down your options.
  • Look at freshman retention rates to see how many students choose to continue their education at the school, and graduation rates to see how many students finish with a degree. These rates can give you some idea of student satisfaction and student support. However, many great schools have high retention and graduation rates simply because they attract motivated students.

As you scan the rankings, you should also look for colleges you’ve never considered. A school that you’ve never thought about or even heard of might be the one for you. If it’s on the list, it has solid academics. The next step is to do a bit more research to learn if it’s also a personality and culture fit for you.

Other Factors to Consider When Choosing a College

Aside from academics, what factors should you research when choosing a college? Other important considerations include:

  • Tuition, financial aid, and scholarship options
  • Location (geographic)
  • Location (setting-urban, suburban, or rural)
  • Majors and course offerings
  • Strength of the majors/courses you’re most interested in
  • Support for students
  • Availability of programs you’re interested in (study abroad, specific internships, etc.).
  • Activities
  • Campus life-Sports, Greek life, student satisfaction/happiness
  • Diversity
  • Dorms and dining

As you read this list, which factors jumped out as especially important to you? Jot those down, and be sure to pay attention to them as you’re researching schools. If any of these considerations seem unimportant to you, you don’t have to include them in your search. Prioritize the criteria that matters the most to you personally.

Finally, it’s extremely valuable to visit your top choices. College rankings, websites, and all the research in the world can’t possibly capture the overall experience or “feel” of a college campus. Once you’ve narrowed down your best options “on paper,” stepping foot on campus often gives you the final piece in the puzzle. You’ll know which school feels like home and fits you best.

Final Thoughts: Should You Trust the U.S. News College Rankings?

U.S. News and other college ranking lists are a useful tool and a helpful starting point in the college selection process. However, they give you only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Use college rankings for insight on academic quality and as a resource for easily scannable data that would take much longer to research on your own.

Then, visit school websites, talk to current or former students, read message boards, and take tours. Gather additional information on cost, campus life, location, and other factors that matter to you.

The right university for you is the one that best meets your needs and preferences. It should have a strong program in your preferred major, plenty of opportunities and activities that interest you, and a campus that feels like home. College rankings can tell you a lot about academic quality, but they can’t tell you much about fit—and that’s what matters the most.

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