Are College Rankings Meaningful?

It’s easy to get caught up in the college rankings hoopla! Who doesn’t’ love a “Top Ten” or “Best of”? Lists are fun and we like to see if our favorites are included. College rankings can be confusing because there are so many lists! (And they don’t agree often!) Here are some of the most well-known sources for annual college rankings:


                Forbes Rankings

                Princeton Review

                Social Mobility Index Rankings

                Top Research Universities

                US News & World Report

                The Wall Street Journal

                Washington Monthly

                Bloomberg Business

Department of Education College Scorecard

One of the reasons there are so many lists, is that each source has its own method(s) to determine the rankings. Here are a few of the factors considered in some or most of the lists:

Graduation and Retention Rates

Academic Reputation (as rated by guidance counselors and academic peers)

Faculty Resources

Student Selectivity

Financial Resources (endowments, etc.)

Alumni Giving


You might be surprised to learn that these rankings can be traced all the way back to 1900. Some employers at that time published a list of “Where We Get Our Best Men”. They publicized the schools that their best new hires had attended. Over time this morphed into some of the “Who’s Who” publications that you might know. The modern version of college rankings really took hold in 1983 when US News and World Report first published “America’s Best Colleges”.

If you want to dig deeper into this topic, there are plenty of great sources online—just search! To keep this blog short, I want to highlight just a couple of points regarding college rankings.

  1. Know what information is used to determine the ranking.
  2. Be aware that some colleges have specific strategies aimed at moving up in the rankings.
  3. Remember to look at the college major/program you are interested in. The program reputation is often more important that the college’s rank as an institution. You can have a great program at a lesser-known (possibly lower ranked) college. There are also highly ranked colleges where some departments might be just average.
  4. Remember that “fit” is more important than a ranking. Find the college where you feel a sense of belonging—“your people” are there. Students excel when there is the right combination of challenge and support.