Are College Ranking Lists Useful?

There seem to be many different college ranking guides from USNW, Forbes, Niche, CWUR, Princeton Review, etc. There are so many different ranking lists (with different criteria considered) available to parents and students that the rankings seem almost disingenuous and more of a marketing ploy by the various colleges.

Has anyone found these ranking lists to be helpful in searching for colleges? If so, which ranking list do you believe is most helpful and why?

I take the rankings with a large grain of salt as they can be easily manipulated by the colleges and for some lists, the factors that went into the rankings weren’t all that important to us personally.

That said, we did use USNWR undergrad rankings for my D’s major as a starting point to start exploring schools to see where she wanted to visit and put on her list. We found the overall college lists unhelpful for a student who had a clear preference of major.

I would rather see more lists to focus on best colleges for each particular major, lists for financial aid (separate list for needs-based and merit-based), and yet more lists for all kinds of special interests.

I find the USNWR list interesting, but the “master list” mentality is of very little practical use when it comes to narrowing down colleges for the combination of DD’s hoped-for major and mix of other features she seeks in a college.

While they can be manipulated, they are a useful tool to get started and narrow the field. Will there be a difference between going to #13 vs. #25, doubtful. But there are definitely better fits for each student.

Mom, we totally agree that the criteria used in some of these ranking lists are not relevant to our family and also can easily be manipulated by colleges. Plus the ranking lists are all over the board in terms of ranking schools. The typical top Ivies and equivalents are usually found within the top 10 schools on most rankings, but then there seems to be a crap shoot as to where other schools fall on a particular ranking list. We have seen what appears to be an east coast or California bias on some of the ranking lists.

My point is that the lists seem helpful for obvious purposes of ranking schools that most of the world has hear of. But beyond that, these lists just do not seem to add much value (other than to sell magazines or help market the reputations of the same old schools)

If a school weights endowment more heavily, schools that used to be women’s colleges or ones that are “newer” in terms of industry, wealth, or philanthropy will lag. But in many cases, this will not matter to you. If they are funding their art museum of have a valuable collection of documents and you want to study physics, it won’t matter.

If you need merit aid and the school funds only need based aid, who cares how it’s rated?

You need to know what matters to you and dig into that.

It’s mostly about selling magazines.

@dadof3and1dog , speaking of a parent who just went through the college search & application process for my son, and who read several books on the topic and scoured multiple rankings and lists, I have to say I definitely found the lists helpful. If for no other reason than there are thousands of colleges in America and no parent (who does not work in the industry) can be expected to know very much about more than a few when it is time to begin the search.

Throughout the 18-month process, I learned a lot and about halfway through (a few weeks after Son had started submitting a few applications and we were still researching schools to choose to apply to) I figured out that, for us, the rankings lists were best utilized more as guides than as absolute certainties.

One thing that swayed me from the absolute certainty view was that different rankings might have a school ranked dozens of spots away from where a different ranking system decided. Also, once I looked deep into the methodology that some rankings utilize, I determined some schools might easily manipulate some rankings, while other rankings were obvious biased toward one or two factors that might not necessarily align with my family’s decision making process.

Also important to keep in mind is that many rankings omit most LACs. If your student has any interest at all in LACs, you might hardly know they exist if you only look at some lists. Even the USNWR’s main list omits most – you have to look at their LAC list to see most of the LACs. I would bet many people never get that deep into the rankings.

I discovered new schools to add to our list, but I didn’t always slavishly adhere to the listers’ rankings.

The factors and weighings they use to compile lists are not the entire story and some factors are completely irrelevant to a given student. But that’s not to say all the factors are meaningless.

The way I suggest using the lists is to look for surprises. Few have the time to look into all 3,000+ 4-year colleges. That the usual suspects (Stanford, Harvard, Cal, etc) place highly on various lists is no surprise. But most people have heard of those schools anyway. It’s when you find a school you haven’t heard of that it may be worth a deeper look. Do the lists uncover every great school out of the limelight? No, but an imperfect list is better than none at all.

Econ, thanks for the feedback. Your observations are very similar to what we are experiencing too. At times, the ranking of particular school can vary (sometimes wildly) between ranking lists. Also, the lack of LACs on most ranking lists for “national” schools is glaring. These types of issues make the ranking lists less meaningful to us.

As Happy mentioned, it may make no difference in attending a #13 or #25 ranked school.

We are finding out that all of the rankings list are probably best used as preliminary guides to do more research on interested schools as others have mentioned.

They all have their own nuances, methodology, etc. I personally prefer Poets and Quants as it seems to be more data driven. We used the primary ones to get a feel and build a list.

One thing I noticed is several of the same schools appear highly ranked (outside of HYPSM and the like) in almost all of them. You can make what you want out of that. For me that meant they are high quality school.

Why? Based on what? The colleges don’t create or publish them.

I have found them to be useful when you use the appropriate ones for your purpose, understand what goes into them, and weight them appropriately. Then use them as a starting point.

For example, USN’s “overall” rankings may tell you about the breadth of offerings and strength across all of them, allowing larger schools to perform better, but they don’t mean much for a particular area of study. Fortunately, they have many major-specific rankings, plus raw data that is available.

My D is looking at CS and I managed to find 10 meaningful “rankings” that had a decent level of meaning. I aggregated/averaged the ranking to have a starting list. SAT ranges/acceptance rates helped put them in reach/target/safety buckets.

In the end, this just helps seed a list for further investigation. It certainly shouldn’t be used as a straight “here’s what’s best for me” ordering.

I think that is the bottom line; use the rankings are a guide to then drill down to the best “fit” colleges to apply to whether its based on finances, academics, social, top major programs, location, alumni networking, etc.

When my D was first looking for colleges, she was interested in Business so we created lists of some of the top ranked schools with that major, but once she started having an interest in being a lawyer (prelaw) she pivoted to colleges with great public policy / political science majors and programs with a interdisciplinary and flexible curriculum.

With that said, I think Forbes, Poets & Quants (for business), Niche (many different rankings and reviews by students); Fiske college guide, and Princeton Review were excellent resources as a starting point to narrow your search.

OP- you must be new here :slight_smile:

There are those who bow to the throne of the rankings, and then there are those wiser folk who, if they use them at all, do so as a preliminary springboard. I’d recommend The Insiders Guide to Colleges and Rugg’s Recommendations as good resources for the student and the parent.

Rankings can be useful when examining the specific components that make up the rating & ranking system.

For example:

Ranking schools by “total endowment” as well as by “endowment per student” is helpful to gauge financial stability & resources of a particular college or university.

Sometimes a low “total endowment” raises concerns about a particular school, while a significant endowment causes me to investigate further certain schools.

“Average first year retention rate” and “six year graduation rate” are very important factors to consider about each school.

“Student to Faculty Ratio”, “Percent of Classes under 20 students” & “Percent of Classes Over 50 Students” can help one find an appropriate school.

“Selectivity” rankings & specific parameters of selectivity by standardized test scores & GPA are helpful in refining one’s college search.

Rankings based on job placement are helpful.

Although interesting, the least useful rankings tend to be those published by the Princeton Review due to their unscientific & haphazard nature.

Rankings of Greek society participation also help inform readers about schools’ social culture.

Rankings by major offer important insights into school curriculums & academics.

Subjective rankings are typically the least helpful.

thanks for all of the comments. Very helpful

As mentioned many times above, rankings are, at best, a starting point.

There are universities and colleges with very impressive student bodies that are not familiar to many students and parents. Word of mouth spreads largely, but not exclusivity, through geographic proximity, large student bodies, large alumni populations and major sporting events.

What about those smaller colleges you may never have heard about? Is it because they are academically weak?

Smaller institutions with high academic standards may be identified by their average matriculating students’ unweighted secondary school GPA. It has been well documented that a much stronger predictor of college success is the secondary school GPA. These average entering GPAs can tell a great deal about the intellectual level of your fellow students. See

High achieving students make for an interesting learning environment when they work together with an accessible faculty in a socializing environment which meets their individual needs.

How can you rank a college without information about you? The students are the primary ingredient.

We used them per major to just get an idea of what is actually out there. I made my son pick schools that he wanted to (mostly top 20), then forced him to learn about schools and apply to them from 21-30,31-40,41-50. Etc What we learn from this exercise was that there are a lot of great schools out there. Plus the lower the ranking meant more merit money ?. (For some students)

But lots of time their just used for bragging rights. IE : Michigan’s ranked 16th in the world… Whooo, yohooo…! ??.

Many of the rankings reflect deeply embedded brands. The voting by officials in mid to late career on these matters speak to opinions and observations baked into their thinking in the 80s and 90s.

It doesn’t really speak to what’s happening on the ground in real time.

It can also reflect social engineering desires of the publication and its modelers.

FWIW. Forbes which blends all schools regardless of size is the one I look to, in general.

Bottom line is to look for general consistency in the lists. You’ll see some variety and movement within the ucs and excellent state schools within the lists. Top 50 Forbes are my top 50.

I think it is important to be aware of the lists, simply because so many people are fixated on them, particularly the USNWR rankings. If you want to actually use the lists, it is important to understand how they weigh various factors that may or may not be of interest to you. We looked at all of them, as data points among many others that we used. I have found that having a basic understanding of the rankings is helpful in understanding how colleges behave in the process. For example, schools are rewarded in many rankings if they have a low acceptance rate. One way to achieve that is to attract a large number of applications, and there are various steps a school can take towards that end - you will see, for example, schools dropping supplemental essays and application fees. Even pre-COVID, more and more schools were going test-optional, which would presumably boost both the number of applications and the average scores reported (since those with lower scores would not submit). It’s kind of a crazy game that the schools have become trapped in because of the rankings.

Stuff like per capita endowment may matter. Stuff like student-faculty ratio (at a research U) can be and are manipulated, though (for instance, schools do do stuff like just taking the undergrads as the numerator but use all faculty in schools that teach undergrads as the denominator even if those schools have grad students and profs obviously have to devote time to grad students too). Plus, student-faculty ratio may vary a lot by major so may or may not be relevant to your situation (as an example, Columbia doesn’t release a Common Dataset now, and I’ve heard the suspicion that it’s because they don’t want to reveal a high student-faculty ratio, especially in STEM majors; who knows what they are telling US News; we know US News doesn’t audit anything and just assumes schools are telling the truth).

To get around that, you could look at stuff that is less easily manipulated like alumni acheivments. I came up with tiers here: