If you work in college admissions or college counseling, you can always tell it is fall by three things:

  1. Students returning to campus
  2. College football
  3. College rankings are revealed

All three bring some anticipation, some anxiety, and some misunderstanding. However, today I want to focus on college rankings.

There are some major publications that come out each year with rankings of the best colleges out there. I can admit there is some merit in these rankings, but there are some things that make these rankings problematic if you do not understand what you are reading. For example, how many people actually take the time to look at the methodology of these rankings to see what is actually being ranked? Let’s take a deeper dive into the methodology of the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

22% of a rank is based on 6 year graduation rates and the overall retention rate of students from their first to second year. This seems fairly reasonable, though so many factors can go into a student’s retention including personal and family matters, finances,and the student’s overall preparation for college. However, retention rates have some validity as to how happy a student is and whether they feel they are comfortable on that campus.

Only 5% is based on social mobility, or how a college prepares a student to better themselves. This rank is based on Pell Grant recipients whose families typically earn less than $50,000 per year. If the entire idea of higher education is to better one’s self, this percentage seems a little low.

7% of the ranking is based on faculty compensation. The thinking is that a school with more resources can be more generous with their compensation of faculty. It’s a noble idea, but the cost of living in New York City is quite different from that of living in Norman, Oklahoma. Just look at home prices.

Another 7% is dedicated to the academic selectivity of the college based on standardized testing and class rank. Fewer and fewer high schools are choosing to rank their students which seems to make this metric a bit dated. However, the more problematic for me is the evaluation of the incoming class based on standardized testing. U.S. News & World Report recognized that last year’s class had few opportunities to test so they went back a year to look at previous data. In this case though colleges are now being ranked by how a student did in high school which says nothing about what the college can provide for the student. Certainly a more selective school is going to have the luxury to admit students with higher test scores and who may rank higher in their graduating class, but this has nothing to do with the education a student may receive at that school. It would be evaluating a hospital on how well they take care of the healthy patients and not those that actually need the care.

But here’s the kicker — 20% of the ranking is based on a peer ranking assessment. Basically it is a popularity contest asking college presidents who they think is doing a good job. There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States alone. Realistically, how many do you think these presidents actually know? They know some of the schools near them geographically, or the ones they might compete against in sports, or where else students tend to apply, but beyond that it is probably fairly limited. And again, how much does that tell you about the transformative experience a student might have at that school? I am not able to make recommendations about restaurants in cities I have never visited, so at best, I am just going off of word-of-mouth, which is what these colleges are doing.

I think it is also important to note what the rankings miss. They don’t tell you about:

  • Social climate on campus
  • Level of engagement of students
  • Student access to research or internships
  • Academic counseling and opportunities
  • Opportunities for career counseling
  • Student demographics
  • Access to professors, labs, or other resources
  • School spirit and pride

I admit that I spend a lot of time focused on college admissions and how we tend to view this whole process. I understand that for students it is the first time that they are going through this process and are looking for a place to begin. Honestly, how do you make sense of all of the information presented to you? A ranking is a reasonable place to start, but that is assuming that you understand the methodology. Don’t be afraid to do a deep dive, look beyond the ranking and the name to find schools that are going to meet your needs and expectations. Remember that your counselor is here to help you make sense of all of this information and relate it specifically to you.

So let’s reframe the way we look at rankings in general and showcase how you, the student, hold the most power. This blog was inspired by some remarks from Rick Clark, the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech who has an awesome blog that I hope you take the opportunity to read.

It is not uncommon for students and families when meeting with me to state that they are looking at “Top 25” schools for college. I understand the subtext that they are looking for a quality education and something that will help set their student up for success later in life. In most cases, students are looking at the “Top 25” colleges or universities according to some well-known periodical that ranks colleges. But why are we looking at this mythical Top 25 only? Is it really because a magazine said that these were the best colleges? Does that make them the best colleges for you?

Think about it this way. If you are shopping for a car and are looking for the best vehicle I might point you to the best-selling vehicle in America for years running, the Ford F-series truck. It’s the most popular by far. In fact, the three most popular vehicles in America right now are trucks. But hang on, did you actually want a truck? Yes, they are useful, but maybe that isn’t quite right for you. Ok, so let’s look at sedans and we get the Toyota Camry, but that may not be exactly what you need either. How about the most popular electric vehicle, the Tesla Model Y? You see, there are so many options and so many different ways to define “best.” Rarely do we put together a ranking of “best for me at this time.”

Maybe we can redefine the “Top 25” idea all together. What if it were the “Top 25” colleges…for you?

With over 4,000 colleges and universities across the United States, even your top 25 puts those schools in the top 0.6% of schools- making that list incredibly selective. Seriously, think about it. You’ve got hundreds of colleges all encouraging you to apply to their school. Large public schools, smaller independent schools, urban campuses, rural schools, various religious influences, they all want you to apply. And realistically, in most cases, you could go to those schools and do just fine. But now those colleges are vying to be in your top 25, or really top 10-15 schools where you are ultimately going to send applications.

Your rankings are more selective than any other college ranking out there. The best part is that you get to decide the criteria and the methodology. Top 25 schools near the ocean? Top 25 with great internships? Top 25 with opportunities to study in Spain? Top 25 that will help me go to graduate school? Let me play on their soccer team? Allow me to produce a television show? Best college mascots? Obviously the list can go on.

Make a list of what is actually important to you and then seek colleges that match those interests. Chasing after a name may only bring a moment or two of happiness. What we are really seeking is a lifetime of satisfaction, pride, and knowledge that you found at a school that supported you at that time and helped you become the best possible version of yourself during an important time in your life.

After eight years working in college admission for two colleges in Southern California, Justin Voss moved to the other side and joined Fairmont Preparatory Academy in Anaheim, California as the Director of College Counseling. During that time he has helped thousands of students navigate the college admissions process. Justin is currently completing a doctorate degree at Creighton University in Interdisciplinary Leadership. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, playing music, and spending time with his family.