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Get Smart About College Rankings

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It's easy to assume that a highly ranked college is a good choice. But is a "best" college really the best one for you?

The hype around college rankings can be difficult to ignore, and putting some "top" schools on your college list may seem like a no-brainer. But rankings should support — not replace — your own research. Here are some things to consider when looking at any college ranking.

How Does the Ranking Define a "Good" College?

It can be hard to see why some colleges get to the top — or even get on the list in the first place. Each ranking assumes that certain college qualities are more important than others. For example, some rankings highly value academic strength, others the quality of student life, and others affordability.

What's Behind the Ranking?

Some rankings rely on subjective input, such as opinions of professors or students. Others use objective data, such as qualifications of entering freshmen, graduation rates, or endowment size. The organization conducting the ranking should provide an explanation of how it collects data and opinions, and how it weights these factors. For example

  • The famous U.S. News ranking gives a great deal of weight to a peer assessment survey, in which college presidents rate other colleges similar to their own.
  • Forbes'  America's Best Colleges bases 20%of the ranking on alumni earnings, 15% on average debt at graduation, 15% on leadership roles of alumni, and 10% on academic success, among other factors.
  • Niche's Top Public Universities methodology bases 40% of the ranking on academics and 27.5% on a "value" grade determined by student opinion, the average loan amount students carry, and alumni earnings.

Can the Ranking Help Your College Search?

Specialized rankings can educate you about college qualities you might not have considered, such as campus safety and rate of admission to graduate schools.

  • You might want to look at rankings of liberal arts colleges to get an idea of what these types of schools have to offer. Or review rankings of regional universities, which might include schools that weren't on your radar.
  • Student opinion rankings can give you an insider's take on dorm food, the off-campus atmosphere, what students do for fun, and more. Just be sure the opinions gathered are only from students at that college.
  • Return-on-investment is another factor you might want to consider. Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce created an ROI college ranking comprised of several factors including tuition and costs, average student debt, graduation rates, and net earnings after enrollment.

Turn to the Ranking That Counts the Most—Yours!

Rankings can be helpful, especially at the beginning of your college search. Just make sure you understand what the rankings are based on. And remember that the most meaningful college ranking can be the one you create for yourself, based on the qualities that are most important to you.

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