Every summer, the well-known U.S. News and World Report releases its U.S. News Best Colleges List, ranking more than 11,500 schools, each vying for as close as they can get to that #1 spot. Students and parents hurry to see which schools made it into the top ten, hoping to start sending their college applications and essays to the schools highest on the list. However, college ranking lists are not like The Lord of the Rings: There is no one ring, or list, to rule them all. There are, in fact, many different college rankings. Depending on your priorities, different rankings help to see other facets of those college application choices.
As one of the oldest ranking systems, U.S. News and World Report is the most famous vehicle that families use to decide which schools are the “top schools.” However, what students and parents should realize is that there are actually many ranking lists out there, and they all have different methods of ranking schools. You can explore multiple ranking systems to tell you what are the best schools for the criteria they’re measuring. To get started, you and your child need to ask yourself, “What matters most to ME for my college experience?” You might consider a specific major, student outcomes and success, affordability, cultural aspects such as sports or art programs, and many more.
So what is U.S. News Best Colleges really telling you?
U.S. News Best Colleges considers a multitude of factors. They consider graduation and acceptance rates, class sizes, GPA and test scores of students, student debt after graduation: all categories you might expect. However, one unique category is called “peer opinion.” This category accounts for 20% of a college’s overall score. What is peer opinion? U.S. News asks the president, provost, and dean of admissions of each school to rank other schools on a scale of 1-5. The higher opinion they have of that school, the higher up the list the school goes. This ranking system means that the same ancient ivy leagues and selective schools remain at the top: everyone’s heard of them and knows them to be a “good” school. Therefore, if you’re only looking at this one list, you’re really looking at prestige.
If prestige is not what matters most to you, it’s time to begin the important process of thinking about who you are and why you’re going to college. Search for college ranking lists that prioritize the same criteria that are important to you. Below are a few lists we recommend and what you can find out from reviewing them.
Created by data scientists, this website ranks thousands of universities using a program they have dubbed the InfluenceRanking engine. Their goal is to create lists that are as unbiased and ungameable as possible, so you can make an informed decision about where to go to school based on your likelihood of success, along with other criteria you can filter for such as major, online programs, and affordability. Academic Influence measures what they consider “influence”: How many students graduate from that college who go on to have influential careers in their fields, and how influential are they? If your main focus is post-graduate success in your field of study, this may be the ranking system for you.
Niche ranks based on recommendation: What are real people saying about the colleges and universities they’ve attended? They rank schools using millions of ratings, reviews, and surveys. Along with general rankings, they have some unique categories that might help you determine the best school based on what’s important to you, such as best athletic programs, social scenes, or campuses. You can also filter based on the major you’re interested in. Start with this list if your most important criteria is the college experience.
CTCL is a nonprofit organization that helps students to consider more than the big, selective schools. They coach students on how to find a school that fits them with questions to ask and topics to consider. Their brochure “How to Choose a College That’s Right for You” is a great place to start if you don’t know what you’re looking for. They also have resources for senior year anxiety and how to make the most of your campus college visit. CTCL member colleges are small liberal arts colleges and universities with holistic admissions processes, challenging and supported academics, residential communities, and schools that offer aid to make learning more affordable.
(Edit added 4/20/2023) New York Times
The New York Times recently published an article pointing out the variety of criteria that a student might base his or her college decision on along with a meta-list creation tool. You can weight a lot of different factors to see how your list might change. It’s dynamic and pretty fun!
What’s the bottom line?
There is no one list to rule them all. U.S. News Best Colleges’ ranking system is the best known, but it is not the only college ranking system out there. Find out what is important to you and make that criteria the center of your college search.