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    Do College Rankings Matter?

    By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    and Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

    Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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    Updated: March 19th, 2024
    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, rankings 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. 

    How are college rankings determined?

    Every ranking organization uses different criteria to rank colleges. There is no “formula” that is broadly used by colleges ranking organizations. So, although we cannot offer the exact formula for each ranking system (except our own!), we can go over what criteria is shared on their websites. Let’s start with our own Scholarships360 ranking system, and then go over a few others. 

    Scholarships360 Rankings

    Scholarships360 is unlike other college rankings in some important student-centric ways.  Scholarships360’s main focus is affordability and student outcomes rather than prestige or selectivity. Vanity metrics such as peer reviews and graduate donations never influence our rankings.

    Over 1,800 colleges and universities were considered for our lists, the “Top Colleges for Students” and “Top Colleges for Affordability”  Let’s get started!

    Scholarships360 Top Colleges for Students in 2024

    How we created the Scholarships360 Top Colleges for Students Rankings

    We started with reliable data sourced from the College Scorecard. We then created an index that weighs graduate income, completion rates, student debt, and net price to produce a figure that indicates how well the school performs for its students. 

    What we considered when creating the Top Colleges for Students rankings:

    1. Graduate income: Graduate income is one of the best ways to gauge whether a school gives its students a financial leg-up. With this said, one of the flaws with graduate income is that it measures overall income as opposed to income by major. Generally, choice of major is more predictive of future income than the college you choose.

    2. Completion rates: One of the best ways to gauge student satisfaction at a school is to consider what percentage of students actually finish their degree. A higher completion rate indicates that the school fulfills its students’ needs and provides them with the resources for a successful academic career.

    3. Student debt: Looking at student debt is a great way to get an idea of a school’s financial aid. For most students, finances are a huge constraint in their college decision, and this figure can help give them an idea of whether they will be able to afford a school or not.

    4. Net Price: Net price shows the average amount that students pay per year after financial aid and loans are factored in. We look at net price rather than tuition cost because it’s the most relevant to how much a student will actually have to pay in order to attend.

    Scholarships360 Top Colleges for Affordability in 2024

    For this list, we ranked each four-year school according to two key factors: Net Price and Average Student Debt. We first took the schools with the lowest costs and debt levels. We then eliminated all schools with a graduation rate below the national average. Again, all of this data was sourced from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard dataset.

    Here are two data points we used to compile the Top Colleges for Affordability rankings:

    1. Net Price: Net Price looks at the price that students are paying once their aid has been applied. Looking at this statistic rather than only tuition helps level the playing field between schools with low tuition and schools with higher tuition but stronger financial aid.

    2. Average Student Debt: Looking at how much debt students take on is the best way to gauge how affordable a particular school is.

    US News rankings

    According to their website, US News assigns a score to each college. In 2024, they based the scores on the following factors, ranked from highest to lowest weight:

    Peer assessment 20%
    Graduation rates  16%
    Graduation rate performance 10%
    Financial resources per student 8%
    Faculty salaries 6%
    Borrower debt 5%
    College grads earning more than a high school grad 5%
    First-year retention rates  5%
    Standardized tests 5%
    Student-faculty ratio 3%
    Pell graduation rate 3%
    Pell graduation performance 3%
    First generation graduation rates 2.5%
    First generation graduation rate performance 2.5%
    Full-time faculty  2%
    Citations per publication 1.25%
    Field weighted citation impact 1.25%
    Publications cited in top 5% of journals 1%
    Publications cited in top 25% of journals 0.5%

    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

    How well the school performs for its students

    Ultimately, students will spend time and money earning their college degrees. The Scholarships360 Top Colleges rankings focuses on actual student outcomes. While we do consider important factors such as graduation rates, we ignore things like peer assessment (which is basically what one academic institute thinks of another) and student reviews because of how subjective they can be.

    Perspective and upward mobility

    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.

    Student satisfaction

    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. Do your homework here, as things such as “town life” and “social scene” can mean very different things to very different students!

    Pitfalls of college rankings

    Rankings are impersonal

    The chief pitfall of college rankings is how impersonal they are. Every student has their own priorities and needs. For example, some students need to live close by an institute of higher education for various reasons. We must 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.

    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

    Final thoughts

    It’s a good idea to make a college decision based on your personal preferences and financial needs. We suggest relying more heavily on in-depth research about prospective schools. Speak with actual students to get an authentic snapshot of a school. Make a list of questions to ask on a college visit.  Inform yourself about how to choose a college that will suit you. Also, carefully weigh out your financial aid options so that you can graduate with zero to minimal debt.

    Make sure that you apply for all the scholarships you qualify for while you are eligible!

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