Scores of websites, books, and magazines offer college ranking lists, which they update each year. Some rank according to academic prestige; others offer rankings based on quality of life on campus, while some lists are comprehensive. You can even find rankings based on perceived attractiveness of the female or male students, or which schools have the best radio stations.
The ranks that most colleges, parents, and students care the most about are the ones that concern academic prestige. After all, we attend college to get a good jobs in the fields of our choice, and we want potential employers to be impressed by the colleges we attend.
The questions students and their parents ask most often are: 1) How accurate are the rankings? 2) How seriously should we take them? There are many articles on the web about the first question, so I will merely summarize: the rankings are fairly accurate. The same college may have rankings that are as far as 15 places apart on two of the major surveys. That’s really not so surprising, since different methods are used for various surveys.
For example, US News and World Report explains: “The indicators we use to capture academic quality fall into a number of categories: assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, and (for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges) high school counselor ratings of colleges and “graduation rate performance.” Some of these factors will be more important to some students than others.
So I wouldn’t get too hung up over whether Harvard or Princeton gets this year’s top ranking. But a prospective employer will probably be more impressed by a degree from the #15-ranked school, as opposed to #25.
Now on to the second question. Obviously, a college’s ranking shouldn’t be the only factor you consider when deciding whether to apply to and/or attend. Let’s consider some other factors, most of whose importance will vary from student to student.
1) $Money$ Given the current state of the economy, this will be the most important factor for many families. Many advisors admonish students that it would be a mistake to rule out private universities on the basis of cost, explaining that attractive financial aid packages can make these schools as affordable as public ones. Colleges are now required to include cost calculators on their websites, which allow you to determine how much money you’ll need, based on your family’s income. However, be aware that a college can modify its financial aid policy from year to year. I personally know two students who were forced to transfer after much of their financial aid was not renewed for their sophomore years. Furthermore, public schools are usually still a lot cheaper after you factor in financial aid.
2) Location This important factor is mostly self-explanatory. However, if your choice of schools in a particular area is too limited, you may need to be flexible. Also, be aware that two colleges in the same area can have very different campuses and external settings (e.g. within a city vs. a few miles away).
3) Size (student body) Many students all but ignore this factor, but I’ve placed it at #3 because it can have a huge bearing on your education and lifestyle. True, a large college offers diversity of professors and courses, but a small school offers small, intimate classes and a tightly knit student body.
4) Academic Programs If you know what field you want to study, you can apply to schools with strong programs in that area. If you decide later, or change your mind, you may end up wanting to transfer.
5) Safety What is the neighborhood like? How effective is campus security?
6) Personal Preferences These include sports, religious affiliation, single-sex colleges, housing, social life, etc. Students may also opt for colleges which have more relaxed requirements for a degree, so they can take more electives.
These factors, along with others I haven’t thought of, may lead you to apply to less competitive colleges. Some students may even prefer a less competitive college, so the coursework won’t be as rigorous.
In any case, you should visit schools that you are seriously interested in attending. To be sure, I’ve known students who have been rejected by all of their top choices, and have opted to attend schools that they hadn’t visited. But remember that a school that “looks” good in an article or a website might not be to your liking.
Before I leave this subject, there is one final factor to consider: Are you planning to continue on to some type of graduate education? That’s not a factor that is often discussed in this context, but it can be very important. Obviously, you want an undergraduate education that will prepare you properly (e.g. a strong pre-med program before medical school). But it’s also important to realize that prospective employers will be more interested in your graduate college than your undergrad one.
Under certain circumstances, you can actually be better off going to a less competitive school. For example, many law schools use an admission “index” based on your GPA and LSAT score (e.g. GPA + 1/10 LSAT). So, whether you earn an undergraduate GPA of 3.5 at Harvard or at Rinky-Dink College of Comic Literature, you will have an equal chance of admission to those law schools. Of course, your Harvard education will probably prepare you better for law school.