By: Nadia Liu
If you’re currently a senior in high school, odds are you’ve checked the US News and World Report college rankings. Maybe, as you were deciding what schools to apply to, you eliminated some because US News ranked them too low, or applied to some purely because of their high rank. However, a good ranking doesn’t necessarily equate to a good fit, and I urge students to prioritize fit over prestige when choosing what schools to apply to.
Currently, US News uses 19 factors to determine a school’s rank, including graduation rates, first-year retention rates, student-faculty ratio, and peer assessment. However, the ranking doesn’t include factors that applicants may prioritize, such as cost of attendance, racial diversity, location, and the quality of a specific major or program. For example, although Yale University ranks fifth on the overall US News ranking, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (ranked 35th) and Purdue University (ranked 43rd) are better schools for engineering. Furthermore, rankings don’t necessarily equate to a school’s quality of education, since factors such as schedule flexibility, availability of tutoring, and career assistance aren’t assessed.
The most notable factor absent from US News’ list is tuition (although it does take into account borrower debt). Tuition costs and student loans are an undeniable reality for many families. By not considering tuition as a factor, rankings perpetuate the misconception that higher-ranked institutions are universally superior, disregarding the financial burden that can affect the rest of a person’s life. The true value of a college encompasses not only the academics but also the accessibility of that education.
Colleges have also figured out how to game the rankings to move up. Because US News takes into account peer assessment, a survey of how colleges are viewed by officials at other schools, colleges can and do wine-and-dine survey voters to receive better responses. Since the ranking comes out at the beginning of the school year and takes into account class size, some schools schedule smaller seminars in the fall semester and larger introductory classes in the spring. In 2008, Baylor University offered students financial rewards to retake the SAT, hoping to increase their average score, a statistic that US News weighs as heavily as first-year retention rates. In 2012, Claremont McKenna released a statement admitting that their admission dean had inflated the average SAT scores given to US News since 2005. Just last year, Columbia University math professor Michael Thaddeus published a thorough analysis accusing Columbia of submitting “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading” statistics for the US News rankings — including lying about class size, faculty qualifications, and spending on instruction — that Columbia later admitted to.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on overall rankings, which can be rigged and disregard crucial criteria. But college rankings aren’t useless—as long as you’re filtering by factors specific to your needs. To avoid falling into this trap, the New York Times created a helpful tool where you can build your own college rankings list based on how much you prioritize certain factors, including party scene, racial and economic diversity, campus safety, and low tuition costs. As you navigate the labyrinth of college choices, it’s imperative to assess the limitations of rankings and prioritize a college experience that aligns with your goals and values, rather than succumbing to the allure of arbitrary rankings.
(Sources: US News, Forbes, The New Yorker, NY Times, TIME Magazine, Washington Post)