ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Applying to College / Rankled by College Rankings?

Rankled by College Rankings?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 3, 2014
Late summers mean U.S. News college rankings. There are also a number of other college rankings that explore various collegiate aspects, such as value, cost, dorm quality, food appeal, etc. However, the U.S. News rankings are responsible for most of the angst and arguments among those who seem to be swept up in their “importance." As Clark Gable said to Vivian Leigh at the end of Gone with the Wind, though, frankly, I don't give a &#@* about college rankings. Maybe you shouldn't care, either.

There's an interesting article in The New York Times about this very subject. D. D. Guttenplan, in Re-Evaluating the College Rankings Gamewrites, “Although the rating of colleges and universities around the world has been heavily criticized by educators and politicians alike, the academic rankings business is big, and booming.

This fall, U.S. News and World Report, which published its first list of “America's Best Colleges" back in 1983, will release its first guide to higher education in the Arab world … So who will rank the rankings?"

Great question. Here's another question: Are you influenced by rankings?

If you're a college-bound high schooler or the parent of one, how can you know which of the myriad colleges out there is best for you or your child? That's probably a heavier, more pertinent question than “Who's ranking the rankings?"

If you aren't familiar with the wonderful world of college rankings, here's a glimpse from an article written last summer by Allen Grove:

If you need your rankings fix, recent weeks did see the publication of the Forbes rankings and The Princeton Review rankings. And, of course, I have my own top picks for a range of categories:

Realize with all these rankings that they have little to do with identifying which college will be best for you. You'll need to do some research and visit some campuses to figure out what schools best match your personality, interests, and goals.

The blatant subjectivity of the term “Top" can be rankling. Of course, as the graphic for my article here states, the ranking “authorities" use their own apportioned criteria to make their judgments. Across the board, these criteria slide in their relative weight, according to their adjudicators' subjective preferences. Your criteria may not be in alignment with theirs. Thus, the confusing conflict.

Parents and students who express their feelings about rankings can be quite strong in their feelings (mostly negative) when they post on the College Confidential discussion forum. Here are a few comments from one particularly interesting thread entitled Ten Reasons to Ignore the U.S. News Rankings, which leads off with this quote from an article by Edward Fiske:

– “… But if you are a college-bound student or the parent of one, there are lots of reasons not to give them any credence. As a starter, and in the spirit of my editorial friends at U.S. News, here are my Top 10:" [Check out Fiske's 10 “reasons." They may change your thinking about rankings.]

What's more is how some colleges debase themselves by splashing the latest US News' (and others!) rankings on their websites, kowtowing to the dictates of a magazine, rather than busying themselves with their mission and ignoring the meaningless, annual pronouncements from those whose job is not education, mind you, but commercial (make a buck) news.

I'd like to see the day when colleges decline to participate in this yearly nonsense. That will happen, I suppose when football and other high profile sports are played by students, not…whatever they are.

I think the US News rankings can be characterized as socially/academically harmful and fundamentally misleading/dishonest, really.

– I often tell my kids to try to figure out “who's driving the Mercedes." Many of these studies (I'm hesitating about saying all of them) serve to benefit the originators. I worked for a college-related survey for a while and the repeated thought was, we're going to find the empty space and fill it or the angle no one else had yet covered.

If you're looking for specificity from Edward Fiske, here are a few of his 10 Reasons to ignore U.S. News:

1. The U.S. News asks the wrong question. The question is not what is the “best" school by some abstract standard, but what is the best school for you. Harvard is a great place for lots of super-bright students, but if at the age of 17 you could still benefit from a bit of stroking, try Swarthmore, Carleton or Pomona.

3. They don't tell you anything really important. When you get to the point of actually deciding among several schools, you want to know about things like whether faculty care about teaching, how competitive the academic climate is and whether you are likely to be comfortable with the kind of students it attracts. Don't look to the rankings for any help here.

5. They are biased against public universities. U.S. News used to have a good mix of public and private institutions in its lists of top schools, but over the years the proportion of publics, which educate more than 75 percent of college students, has declined. Are we really to believe, as the rankings released today suggest, that there are no publics among the top 20 national universities in this country. Of course, one reason for the anti-public bias is obvious.

[And two of my favorites ]

8. Colleges game the system. U.S. News claims that colleges can't improve their rankings by tactics such as getting more alumni to contribute to the Annual Fund. But this doesn't stop colleges from trying. Within the last year, two quality schools, Claremont McKenna College and Emory University, acknowledged submitting inflated data in areas such as test scores and GPAs. Several years ago Baylor even paid entering freshmen hundreds of dollars to retake the SAT and boost their scores.

9. U.S. News also games the system. If you know that the list of top schools will be the same year after year, why buy the magazine? U.S. News tweaks the formula each year (sometimes for very good reasons). This assures churning of the rankings.

The quest to sell magazines

So what should you do if you agree that the rankings business is rankling your college search? Answer: SuperMatch. As I mentioned in a previous Admit This! article

Finding the right college can be a lot tougher than finding the right girlfriend or boyfriend. Plus, many times the stakes are much higher. What can a confused high schooler and his parents do? Well, finding the right answer just became a whole lot easier (and cooler) with the debut of the ultimate college search-and-matching tool: SuperMatch.

SuperMatch is the latest advantage College Confidential provides for high schoolers. As the CC Web site's SuperMatch link proclaims, “College Confidential can help you narrow down your school choices. Search more than 3,000 colleges and universities by name, location, or area of study!" So, what makes SuperMatch all that different from (and superior to) all the other college-search tools out there?

For starters, SuperMatch allows students and parents to search online for a college or university by using 19 criteria, including location, tuition, admission standards, major and Greek life …

So, who needs rankings when you have resources like this searching/matching tool to use? To support my contention that rankings are useless (even detrimental) to searching for and matching colleges with prospective collegians, I'd like to end my case here with the words of Zac Bissonnette, who wraps up his argument against college rankings in his elegantly titled article 5 Reasons Why Every Single College Ranking Is a Pile of Crap this way:

… But the largest problem with all these college rankings and guides is this: A student's success or failure in college and in life will ultimately be determined by who they are, not which college they attend. Successful people attended all kinds of colleges – only three CEOs of the top 20 Fortune 500 companies attended “elite" colleges, and 12 of the top 20 attended public colleges.

A big “Amen!" for that.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

More on Applying to College

See all
typing at computer- karolina-grabowska-6958506-resized

Authentic Voice in College Essays

That’s why you want to use your authentic voice when writing any college essay.

So what’s the problem? A student has shared an ess…


College Interview Prep Tips: Brainstorm, Research, Analyze, Generalize

I recently visited Washington University in Saint Louis and was lucky enough to set up an interview. By speaking with peers of mi…

campus gates

Academic Index Scores: Why They Matter and How They're Calculated

Note: Click here for 10 Summer Programs You Can Still Apply For or keep reading to learn more about academic index scores.

8 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

7 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

Podcasts can offer a wealth of information to busy students, particularly when it comes to the college admissions process. We…


Avoid College Application Regrets: Tips For Getting It Right the First Time

Decision Day occurs each year on May 1st and is the deadline for students to inform the college of their choice of their intent t…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship