Everything You Need to Know About College Rankings

Each year, I see students make the mistake of choosing which colleges they’ll apply to by referencing a national college ranking list (like U.S. News or Forbes), copy/pasting a few well-recognized names, and calling it a day.

While college rankings can be a helpful starting point while exploring options, they tend to exclude or undervalue some colleges with a fantastic quality of education, wonderful social and professional networking opportunities, and more reasonable tuition pricetags.

College rankings should only be a fraction of the information a student considers while building a well-researched college list tailored to their own individual needs, interests, and goals. Here are some important factors to keep in mind: 

Overall Ranking vs. Program-Specific Ranking

There's a difference between a college’s overall ranking and its program-specific rankings. Just because a school overall is ranked within the nation’s Top 20, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s within the Top 20 for every field of study. Some schools’ rankings can be inflated by a really strong Computer Science program, while their Biochemistry or Political Science program is lacking – or vice versa! For example, UIUC overall is #41 in the nation, but it’s #5 in the nation for Computer Science!

Ranking Criteria

Additionally, pay close attention to how rankings are determined. Even the most widely reputed ranking list – U.S. News – fluctuates from year to year. (For example, UIUC was #41 overall this year, up from #47 just last year). Generally, the main determining criteria include Acceptance Rate, 4-Year Graduation Rate, and Tuition Cost, as well as the amount of funding a college receives for things like Research and Special Programming. See how this causes a massive feedback loop?

The Feedback Loop

As a college’s acceptance rate drops and its tuition cost rises, its rankings climb higher, which causes more funding to pour in from big donors, and more applications to pour in from eager students. Because the college’s max capacity remains the same, the percentage of accepted students from that applicant pool drops.

More highly-ranked colleges can also get away with hiking their tuition costs year after year, because they know plenty of students will still apply in pursuit of a degree from an elite school – even if they have to go deep into debt to get it! 

Reputation & Name-Recognition

But while college rankings aren’t the only indicator of the value, resources, and opportunities a college has to offer, they can reflect a college’s reputation. A degree from a college with international name-recognition could give a healthy boost to an already-strong internship or job application. 

Still, it’s important to remember that name recognition isn’t everything. If you haven’t done a thorough job of researching a college before applying there, you might wind up attending a school that doesn’t suit your goals, interests, or lifestyle. Perhaps you had in mind a cozy, tight-knit campus with Classical architecture and lots of outdoor activities – but you end up in a fast-paced urban center, dodging traffic as you walk from class to class. Or you might even find yourself so swamped with your ultra-rigorous coursework that you have no time or energy to pursue the research and internship experiences that will be crucial for your Medical or Law School applications. 

At Vanguard, I guide each of my College Counseling students through their own research deep-dives as they determine which schools they’ll be investing their time and money into. These are big decisions, so we take our time to make sure they’re the right ones! College rankings should be a part of the formula, but not the deciding factor. Find out more about our college counseling services here!

Madison B.

College Counselor

Washington University St. Louis (Full Scholarship Recipient)

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