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College Rankings, Debunked: How Ranking Works, and What it Means for Your College Decision

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It’s common to hear colleges referred to in terms of their rankings: references to “Top 10” colleges, or proud statements of “#6 college in the country” abound, but who exactly makes these determinations? And what factors into their decisions?


The rankings released by the best known sites, such as US News and World Report, Forbes, or the Princeton Review are held as gospel by all players in the college admissions game, most of all some students and parents. It’s not uncommon for a student to make their college decision based purely off which school has the highest rank. Ostensibly, this makes sense: higher rank means better school, and who wouldn’t want to go to the best school?


But for all the stock that students, parents, and educators alike put into college rankings, relatively few people ever stop to question the methodology behind the all-important numbers. What does being the #1 school actually mean, and how does a school gain that distinction? In this blog post, we at CollegeVine will clear the fog surrounding college rankings.


How are Ranking Sites Organized?


Most college rankings don’t feature every single institution of higher learning in the world on one list; they’re broken down into several categories. You can find rankings by type of school (research university vs. liberal arts college), region, major, type of degree awarded, and more. Each ranking list has a slightly different criteria.


In addition, not all colleges are included on ranking sites. If one of the factors that is considered in the ranking formula is not applicable to a college, they may be left off the list. For example, schools that don’t consider SAT or ACT scores are not included on many college ranking sites, as the average SAT or ACT score of admits is a factor many sites include in their methodology. In addition, exceptionally small schools and graduate- or upperclassmen- only schools are left out of many general college rankings, which primarily consider the undergraduate experience.


Where do Ranking Sites Get Their Information?


Contrary to what you might assume, rankings aren’t based purely off quantitative data, which is largely self-reported by colleges or sourced from various government agencies. Instead, they consider a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors sourced from administrators at peer institutions (colleges of a similar rank), high school guidance counselors, and the colleges themselves.


What Factors are Considered in Determining Rankings?


Academic Reputation

Administrators at peer institutions and college guidance counselors are asked to judge their perception of the quality of undergraduate education at each college. Respondents are typically asked about the more qualitative aspects of a college that can’t be evaluated through numerical data, like quality of instruction or student engagement on campus. While more subjective than test scores or other statistics, this information affords ranking sites a more holistic perspective.


Retention Rate

Retention rate refers to the percentage of students who remain enrolled after their first year, as well as the percentage of students who graduate within a certain time frame (typically 6 years). Retention rate is an indicator of students’ satisfaction with their experience at the school in question. A student who has an excellent social and educational experience and is given adequate support from advisors and administrative staff their first year is very likely to remain enrolled, whereas students who are dissatisfied with their classes or don’t have adequate access to resources may choose to drop out or transfer.


Instructional Resources

This includes class size, faculty salary, education of faculty, student-faculty ratio, research accomplishments of faculty, and percentage of full-time faculty. Faculty who have achieved the highest degree of education in their field, are well-compensated, and who are not overburdened with students in theory can provide a better educational experience to students and are more invested in their positions. A high percentage of faculty who have published well-known research or been awarded significant accolades also indicates students will have a high-quality educational experience.



To determine a school’s selectivity, ranking sites consider multiple factors: standardized test scores and class rank of applicants, as well as acceptance rate and yield rate. These factors indicate more academically competitive students, who are in turn more likely to gain prestige for or donate to the university later on. A high yield rate (the percentage of students accepted who choose to matriculate) also suggests the school is a desirable choice and that academically competitive students frequently choose the school over other institutions.


Financial Resources

A school’s financial resources are quantified through the amount spent on each student or the value of the school’s endowment. Schools with larger endowments are able to spend more on each student, which may include offering nicer amenities, hiring more accomplished staff, granting more generous financial aid, scholarship, and stipend programs, and providing access to more support programs, such as student medical services or advising.


Alumni Donations

A higher percentage of alumni who choose to donate to the school indicates a satisfactory student experience. An alumnus who has a strong sense of school pride and identity and was given the resources to succeed as an undergraduate is more likely to donate. A high donor rate correlates with a strong sense of community on campus and access to exemplary educational and extracurricular programs for students.


How Much Stock Can Be Put in School Rankings?


Looking at the factors above, it’s clear that a majority of them are quantitative in nature. This, in addition to the fact that some schools will purposely structure their admissions or educational programs to perform better in ranking algorithms, casts some doubt on the reliability of the process. For example, colleges will often send promotional materials and otherwise advertise themselves to students that fall well below the typical academic profile for admits. This encourages students who will likely not be admitted to apply, thus lowering acceptance rates. Some schools offer honors programs that provide specialized amenities and resources to certain accomplished students, thus inflating their yield rate.


Despite the reliance on quantitative metrics and the possibility of manipulation, college rankings in general can be seen as a fairly accurate representation of the resources available to students at a certain school. Factors like per-student spending and retention rate clearly correlate to the resources available to students or general student satisfaction, and universities that typically rank in the top 10 are typically able to provide resources and opportunities to their students that other schools cannot.


However, this by no means that the schools that rank high are the only schools that can be considered “good schools”, nor does it mean that they’re the best school in every regard. A high rank simply means that the school in question performs well in all the factors considered by the ranking site. Yet there are countless other factors, like quality of dining hall food, sense of school spirit, availability of LGBT resources, or faculty accessibility, that either can’t be quantified or aren’t considered in typical rankings. However, these factors can make a significant impact on a student’s college experience and education.

For these reasons, college rankings shouldn’t necessarily play a significant role in your final college decision. They serve as a great starting point for finding out which schools, either nationally or regionally, attract the most competitive students or have the highest student-to-faculty ratio.  Factors like this can significantly affect your experience as an undergrad, and rankings can be a great resource to you as you begin to put together your college list or finalize your choices.


But ultimately, these probably won’t be the factors you consider when finally choosing a school; you’ll think about the inspiring professor you met, the amazing pasta you had in the dining hall, the friendly and engaged tour guide that made you feel like you truly belonged on campus. It’s things like this that can’t be placed on a 1-5 scale or worked into an algorithm, and can’t be reflected through rankings.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.