Do College Rankings Matter: Truth Of The Ranking System

According to their majors, schools, and most enrolled students, all top newspapers and websites post a list of top Colleges. What do these rankings mean? Should you depend on these rankings entirely and decide on a college based on them? Let's discuss what factors these ranking considered and what they mean.

The data that helps decide which college is the "best" and is not is through the information released from the colleges and universities themselves. 

Editors of the newspapers and websites can creatively interpret the information they do (or don't) receive. For example, should an institution choose to abstain from submitting data, at least one publication editor will resort to a formula that creates values for that institution based on its presumed peers' values.

What Are The Top College Ranking Factors?

  • Annual revenue
  • Number of students 
  • Number of ancillary services or practice areas
  • The success ratio of the average number of students admitted to top 25 U.S. colleges and universities, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. 
  • Client satisfaction (testimonials/votes)
  • Social media presence
  • Executive thought leadership
  • Editorial input

How Subjective Is College Ranking?

Rankings are highly subjective. Consider, for example, reputation. In the U.S. News & World Report rankings, reputation carries the most significant weight. On the surface, that might make sense—until you come to know how important is "measured."

Each year, U.S. News & World Report sends three ballots to each participating school asking the recipients (president, academic dean, and dean of admission) to rate peer institutions on a scale of five to one. The assumption is that these individuals know higher education better than anyone else and are in the best position to make qualitative assessments.

What do you think? Could you provide such a rating for each of the high schools in your state? It is highly doubtful, just as it is highly doubtful that these three voters can make objective assessments of peer institutions across the country. 

Consequently, fewer than half respond. Many who do complete the rating form are making educated guesses. To address related concerns, the editors now solicit ratings from selected guidance counselors as well. Not surprisingly, the participation rate among all "voters" continues to below. That said, what do the rankings really tell you about reputation?

How Often Do The College Ranking Changes

Change is glacial in nature on college campuses, yet every year the outcome of the rankings change. Why? At least one ranking guide (U.S. News) admits to changing or "tweaking" its formula each year—further evidence of the subjectivity involved as well as the editors' need to maintain uncertain outcomes from year to year.

While many institutions might look alike on the surface, they are very different regarding their programs, instructional styles, cultures, values, and aspirations. Another reason why trying to rank them is a daunting, if not impossible, task. It is why it is like comparing apples to oranges. 

It isn't easy to compare all the institutions based on one set formula. Some students might like engagement-based learning, while some students might like just listening.

How You Need to Look At The College Ranking

Project yourself into the picture. You must ask yourself, "What do the editors of ranking guides really know about me?" Where, for example, do they talk about the colleges that are best for the bright but timid student who wants to study classical archaeology or the student who learns best through engagement in the classroom or the young person whose sense of self and direction is still emerging? What tangible takeaways do college rankings offer that applies to your situation?

Look for evidence that rankings will make a difference in your college planning outcomes. Ask yourself, "What's in it for me?" Unlike the purchase process with other commodities (cars, appliances, etc.), the ultimate choice of a college is the product of a mutual selection process. 

How Considering College Ranking Will Help A Student Get Admission

Rankings don't get students into colleges, nor do they necessarily point you in the best direction for you.

Over the last 30 years, the college-going process has turned upside down by ranking guides. Whereas the focus should be on the kids—and what is best for them. College ranking guides focus on destinations that they presume to be most desirable. 

In reality, they are artificial metrics for quality in education that detract from rational, student-centered decision-making.

Herein lies the disconnect. If ranking guides are handy to consumers, why do so many students apply to schools where the chances of gaining admission are less than one out of four? And where is the usefulness of college ranking guides when barely half of the students entering college this year will graduate from any college during their lifetimes?

What College Ranking Promotes?

Rankings promote a destination-orientated and obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. The student might head more critically than what is to accomplish or why that goal might be necessary, or how the institution might best serve the student. 

When distracted by the blinding power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few institutions, it is easy to lose sight of one's values and priorities and the full range of opportunities that exist.


To conclude, keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. Resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. Instead, focus on developing a list of colleges based on who you are, why you want to go to college, and what you want to accomplish during your undergraduate years.

 These things will help you choose a college that is suitable for you. And don't lose sight of how you like to learn. Stay student-centered, and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.