How to use college rankings wisely

Which is the best college or university in the country? That all depends on who you ask. There are several well-respected college ranking experts out there, but their number one picks vary wildly. (Photo: Thinkstock)Which is the best college or university in the country? That all depends on who you ask. There are several well-respected …Which is the best college or university in the country? That all depends on who you ask. There are several well-respected college ranking experts out there, but their number one picks vary wildly, from Vassar to West Point to Harvard University to Williams College-and just because they say a particular school is the best doesn't mean that it's the best choice for you.

"If anyone is using the rankings as the sole way to decide, that's the wrong use for the rankings," says Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News & World Report, who develops the surveys and procedures that the magazine uses in its famous annual evaluation of colleges. Here's what you need to know to use each of them well when considering college choices.

College ranking systems are best used to get a broad view of what's out there. "They can provide credible guidance on the relative merits of schools, and people can use the data comparatively," Morse points out. But students and parents "shouldn't just rely on the raw numerical rank," he adds. "They should have some basis for understanding how the people doing the ranking made that determination."

The methodologies vary wildly.
U.S. News & World Report ranks schools nationally and by region and type, so large national universities, like Harvard and Princeton, don't appear on the same lists as smaller liberal arts colleges. They use information provided by the schools themselves, Morse explained in an interview with Yahoo! Shine, including reputation surveys, admissions data, SAT and ACT scores, acceptance rates, faculty salaries, alumni giving, financial resources, class size, and student-faculty ratios. Failure to fill out a survey completely (or having the survey completed by different people from year to year) can result in a change in rank. "Rankings are generally stable over time," Morse says, but this year because the Carnegie classifications used to evaluate the data were revised at the end of 2010, some schools changed categories (from a national university category to a regional one, for example).

Forbes, which started ranking colleges in 2008, does not divide schools by size or region. Instead, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity ranks 650 schools for Forbes based on student evaluations on, the number of alumni listed in Who's Who in America, salary information for graduated gleaned from, average student loan debt and default rates, and four-year graduation rates, among other things, writes Forbes editor Michael Noer.

The Princeton Review offers up 62 different Top 20 lists instead of ranking schools in order from best to worst. The data comes from surveying 122,000 students at 376 colleges, The Princeton Review said in a statement, and their lists offer rankings on everything from class size and political activity to LGBT-friendliness and social life.

Newsweek's model is similar to The Princeton Review's, with 25 lists of 25 schools that make their cut in categories including best international schools, best party schools, most beautiful, cheapest, and best food. "To come up with our rankings, we looked at what American kids really care about these days, and also pulled from sources including the National Center for Education Statistics, the College Board, the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, the Sustainable Endowment Institute, a data partnership with the Washington Monthly-and, in one case, even Playboy," Clark Merrefield, Lauren Streib, and Ian Yarett explain over at The Daily Beast.

Know what you want in a school

Before putting much weight into a school's rank, it's important for students to decide what they're really looking for in a school-and they shouldn't wait until the last minute to start their search. "They have to do the hard homework of understanding the cost, location, activities… listening to people's advice about where students from that high school have gotten into," Morse says.

Consider the classes and degrees offered by each school-do they fit your interests? What is the campus like-do you want a city setting or a classic, tree-lined quad? If you can, visit several schools and talk to students-what teaching style do the instructors have, how are the classrooms set up? And, last but not least, take a look at tuition, room, board, and fees, as well as typical financial aid packages-which schools are affordable for your family?

Keep in mind that the top schools in any ranking list are probably also the most competitive. When it comes to U.S. News & World Report's cream of the crop, "It goes without saying that only a small number of students can get into the top 10," Morse says. Students need to be realistic about their qualifications, and understand that, even if they are qualified, they still might not get in. "The top 10 could be drawn from the top five percent of high school students or even less," Morse explains. There's simply no room to accept every applicant.

Poring over rankings is no substitute for getting out and visiting colleges yourself, Morse points out. "The rankings should be used to select and compare schools, but not to choose schools," he says. "Rankings should only be one tool, one piece of information."

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