How College Rankings Work

Efforts by Colleges to Spread Information
College counselors say that rankings can be a useful starting point, but in-depth research and campus visits, whenever possible, ­are an essential part of the college search.
College counselors say that rankings can be a useful starting point, but in-depth research and campus visits, whenever possible, ­are an essential part of the college search.
Photo by Jose Gil courtesy Dreamstime

Though some colleges have turned away from rankings and no longer use them in their marketing materials, these schools say that it's important not to deprive prospective students of the data they need. As a result, colleges are trying to present more comprehensive information that better reflects their institutions. In September 2007, a consortium of schools expects to launch a Web site on which prospective students will find information about colleges and universities. It will be useful information like the real cost of a year at a school, rates of acceptance , matriculation and graduation and demographic information. The site will also feature descriptive graphics and comparison tools.

The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which represents more than 600 public colleges and universities, is considering its own Web site. It would include even more information like survey results showing how much students feel they are learning. Another organization, the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 schools, claims to be considering a site as well.

­Schools dropping out of the U.S. News ranking will likely generate some confusion and controversy at first but should also bring about some welcome changes. Numerous interscholastic associations, education nonprofit organizations and other groups are meeting, discussing initiatives, lobbying for changes to ranking systems, and brainstorming more comprehensive materials and more accurate rankings. The process should facilitate better communication between colleges, administrators, publishers of rankings and past, present and future students.

If this ranking- and information-sharing revolution comes about, the Internet will play an important role. Nearly every proposal calls for sharing information online and making it descriptive, easy to access and useful. Then, if publications still want data for rankings, they can just go to a school's Web site, the same place where many prospective students will get their information.

Already, some of these changes are taking place. Sites like, which also handles SAT registration, allow students to learn about and conduct side-by-side comparisons of the colleges that interest them.

So with all of this controversy and potential change, how should rankings be used? Most college counselors say that they have their uses, but they're only one of many tools and are best considered as starting point. Pay attention to the facts and data they provide, but know that the rankings may not be entirely accurate. In the past, schools have, sometimes intentionally, submitted incorrect information, throwing off their scores. And some publishers may change how they determine the rankings of schools that no longer provide data.

College counselors recommend visiting schools whenever possible. Talk to current students and alumni. E-mail a professor if you can and find out what truly distinguishes this school from another. After all, Americans are lucky: We have hundreds of diverse schools from which to choose, and college counselors generally agree that there is more than one "right" school for a person.

For more information about college rankings and related topics, please check out the links on the next page.

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