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Do College Rankings Matter?

As students and their parents search for the right college, one of the first places they turn is college rankings. But do college rankings matter? While they might be one tool to help decide on a college, they are by no means the most important one. Let’s talk about how college rankings are determined to show you what they actually mean. Then, we’ll discuss the ways in which you can use them to help inform your choice. Finally, we’ll go over the ways in which they are not useful.

How are college rankings determined?

Every ranking organization uses different criteria to rank colleges. So, although we cannot offer the formula for each ranking system here, we can go over a few examples. Most ranking systems include their ranking criteria, so if you are ever curious about one specific ranking set, you can look at their specific system. However, for the most part, many of these systems are quite similar. So, you can look at these examples to get a general idea of the factors that go into college rankings.

Related: What are Public Ivy schools?

US News rankings

According to their website, US News assigns a score to each college. In 2021, they based the scores on the following factors, ranked from highest to lowest weight:

  1. Graduation and retention rates (22%)
  2. Undergraduate academic reputation (20%)
  3. Faculty resources for upcoming academic year (20%)
  4. Financial resources per student (10%)
  5. Graduation rate performance (8%)
  6. Student selectivity for incoming class (7%)
  7. Graduate indebtedness (5%)
  8. Social mobility (5%)
  9. Average alumni giving rate (3%)

Princeton Review rankings

In contrast with US News, the Princeton Review uses a survey-based approach for their rankings. Rather than taking statistics, they survey students at each school and use the responses to their questions to rank schools.

Their survey questions all fall under one of the following categories:

  • Academics/Administration
  • Quality of life
  • Politics
  • Campus life
  • Town life
  • Extracurriculars
  • Social scene
  • Schools by type

The best uses for college rankings

College rankings can be useful to get some perspective on how your school stands up to other schools in the categories being ranked. Rankings such as US News can give you some perspective into how much money the school will spend on your education. For students seeking upward social mobility, these rankings can also show how likely you may be to land a high-paying job after graduation.

Surveys such as the Princeton Review can offer an at-a-glance view of students’ perspectives on a school. You won’t get individual testimony, but you can see schools ranked by how their students like them. If you are considering a school that has a very low ranking on Princeton Review, you may want to check with the students there to see whether they notice high student dissatisfaction on campus.

College rankings can also give you some insight into the prestige of a school. Schools that consistently rank among the top probably have name recognition with employers. You might have an easier time landing your dream job if you graduate from a famously high ranking school. These schools also probably got to the top for a reason. They may have strong alumni networks or great resources at students’ disposal.

Related: Find out your admissions chances with a Scattergram

Pitfalls of college rankings

Rankings are impersonal

The chief pitfall of college rankings is how impersonal they are. By assigning a single number score to an entire college, these lists ignore the specific needs and wants of each student. Every student has their own priorities and needs and so the universal weighting system that is used to determine rankings cannot suit the vast majority of college applicants.

Furthermore, we should remember that students are human beings and not statistics. A happy student will perform better in school and enjoy their experience more. If you know that you want to go to an urban school, but the highest-ranked school you get into is rural, you should not let that ranking make your decision for you. Each school has its own factors that cannot be quantified, but will affect a student’s chance of success.

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Rankings do not reflect strengths and weaknesses of individual academic programs

After arriving at a school, a student will eventually decide on a major. Depending on the school and major, they might spend the vast majority of their time studying this field. But each academic department is separate at every school, and some are stronger than others. Let’s say a school is known for a strong engineering program but has a weak English program. The weak English program will drag their college ranking down. However, for a student who knows that they want to study engineering, this shouldn’t make any difference to them. They will view the school as weaker than it actually is, as the result of a department that does not affect them.

Unrelated factors can throw off schools’ scores

Rankings can also be thrown off by unrelated technicalities. Let’s take the average admitted test score statistic for example. Many schools are becoming test-optional in recent years. This is an effort to increase accessibility to colleges. Because of this option, only students who score exceptionally high scores submit them. This artificially increases the average admitted test score at test-optional schools. These schools will score higher even though the students who didn’t submit scores would have dropped their ranking down.

Another example could be the criteria for extracurriculars. Many urban schools have less in the way of extracurriculars because they know that students have a bustling city to explore. These schools will score lower on extracurricular rankings, even though there is plenty to do at the schools. It’s an unrelated consequence of the school’s location. Rural schools typically invest more resources into extracurriculars to entice students to live in a rural setting.

Also see: How to plan a college visit


To sum it up, college rankings are typically much less important than we think. They are so general that they lose some of their helpfulness for students. Too often, college rankings create unnecessary anxiety for students. It’s a good idea to take college rankings with a grain of salt and make a college decision based on your personal preferences and needs. You’re better off deciding what attributes you want in a school and looking at those specific elements. Rankings often seem more objective than they actually are.

We suggest relying more heavily on in-depth research about prospective schools and speaking with admissions staff and students. This is the best way to get a portrait of the school and to see how it would suit you. Don’t choose a school just because it ranks higher; ultimately, as you start class, you’ll be happier to have gone with your gut than to have followed the numbers.

Also see: How to choose a college