When you're reading about U.S. colleges and universities, you will often see rankings that the school received from a certain source. These rankings may read something like...
To know how much importance to give these rankings, first learn more about the system.
Rankings of colleges and universities are made by an outside source such as an organization, a publication, or an academic group. In addition to rankings of the institutions themselves, often you will also see rankings of specific academic programs, such as law programs or computer science departments at various colleges and universities. Rankings are issued within specific categories depending on an institution's characteristics; for example, a small liberal arts school would not be ranked alongside a larger state university as the qualities that define each type of institution are not directly comparable.
Each ranking group decides which schools to rank and what combination of factors to use in determining rankings. Some use statistical data, such as test scores of incoming students, graduation rate, class size, and tuition costs. Others use public survey results to gauge more abstract characteristics such as value and reputation.
Some of the best-known U.S. ranking sources are:
- U.S.News & World Report. Offers rankings of colleges and universities in 15 areas related to academic excellence.
- Vanguard College Rankings. Ranks the top colleges and universities, focusing on faculty quality and reputation, with data compiled by the National Research Council.
- Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index. Ranks research universities based on academic and scholarly quality data gathered by Academic Analytics.
- The Princeton Review. Maintains 62 rankings lists across eight categories based on feedback from more than 120,000 students across the nation.
- Others. Sources such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges and Kiplinger's publish rankings based on their individual determinations.
How rankings can help you. Rankings are a great tool in choosing the right college or university because they condense a great deal of comparative information about schools or academic programs. Rankings can help you compile a list of schools to check out for yourself, or alert you to a school you might have otherwise overlooked.
A word of caution. Less than ten percent of colleges and universities receive attention in the ranking system, so only looking at rankings will result in overlooking many fine schools! Many of the nationally recognized ranking systems do not rank every college.
"Although rankings seem like a simple way for students and their families to decode the complexity inherent in comparing colleges, this method is increasingly questioned by leaders of many institutions of higher education," reports Murphy D. Monroe, executive director of admissions at Columbia College Chicago. "A student's eventual career success is based on many more important factors than just the college he or she attends."
Rankings are good to know, but experts will tell you that it is your judgment about the overall appeal of the institution that matters.
Jane Schreier Jones, a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is a freelance writer whose work includes extensive writing in the field of education.