Each year, updated college rankings are eagerly anticipated by universities, the media, and prospective students who need help narrowing down their school choices. Everyone from U.S. News and World Report to The Daily Beast gets in on the action, and while it’s always nice to have a list (or even several) on hand to help you out with the big decision, turns out they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. In fact, the whole ranking system has come under fire for being too subjective and prejudiced in favor of schools rather than students. With high school seniors weighing their options this month, we had to wonder: How much attention should you really be paying to rankings?
For Jay, an 18-year-old college sophomore in Florida, looking at different lists was helpful in narrowing down her choices. “I went on college tours and rated schools based on my experiences,” she says. She then turned to the internet to help inform her final decision. “I searched online and factored in rankings from Forbes and Princeton Review. It made my selection a lot easier, and that’s how I ultimately chose the school I’m at today.”
Maya, a 17-year-old from New York, is going to school overseas next fall to pursue a degree in equestrian studies. Her pool of programs was small, so she didn’t need to consult rankings to make her decision. “I had this short list of options handed to me,” she says. “But most of my friends who don’t know what they want to do have no idea where to look.”
And for students seeking less specific programs, the rankings can either help narrow their search or just prove more confusing. Maya’s friends relied on services like College Prowler, which collects data from college students, in addition to factoring in traditional published rankings. “College Prowler rates everything—even the boys and parties,” Maya says, adding that she thinks these kinds of sites can lead students to choose schools for the wrong reasons.
Bev Taylor, the founder of New York-based college admissions consulting firm Ivy Coach, has seen echoes of this confusion as well. Frequently, she says, parental influence, peer pressure, and the desire to go to a highly-ranked school with built-in name recognition can lead students to focus on a school that might not be a good fit.
“I try very hard to get students and parents past the rankings,” she says. “It doesn’t always work. It’s so ingrained in the culture that it’s got to be an Ivy League school or an MIT or a Stanford.” Taylor cites an example of a student who was accepted to a top liberal arts school but was preoccupied with being waitlisted at Columbia: “There are only eight Ivies, but there are so many wonderful schools.” She recommends using in-person visits as the ultimate tool for determining a school’s suitability, since they allow prospective students to get a real feel for campus life.
Not to mention, rankings ultimately benefit the school and not the applicant. “This whole waitlist process is designed because colleges hesitate to accept kids they may love for fear that that they won’t come if accepted,” Taylor says. A denial on the part of a student negatively impacts that school’s yield (that is, the number of accepted students who end up enrolling) and therefore its ranking.
“These colleges are also putting kids on the waitlist who might not have perfect grades or even near-perfect grades,” Taylor explains. “They figure if these students are proactive about getting off the waitlist and do end up enrolling, their numbers aren’t going to be factored into the college’s average GPA or SAT scores.” This—you guessed it—means rankings don’t suffer if a less qualified applicant ultimately gets admitted, further incentivizing colleges to waitlist students.
There’s also the matter of the rankings themselves. While College Prowler’s party rankings might seem arbitrary, U.S. News and World Report’s rankings are partially based on subjective factors like school reputation and the ability of university faculty to rate the dedication of teachers at rival schools. Whether or not you think that’s fair, it’s certainly something to consider the next time you pore over another definitive-seeming list.