Do College Rankings Matter?

January 19, 2021 · 6 minute read

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Do College Rankings Matter?

All articles about college rankings should perhaps be read with a grain of salt and primarily through a lens of what matters most to individuals about the college experience and what they’re hoping it will be an investment toward.

Prominent publications and people have conveyed a variety of views about whether college rankings matter:

The editor-in-chief of the Science Family of Journals said no in May 2020. “To any logical scientific observer, the fine distinctions of where schools show up on this (U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges) list are statistically meaningless—but try telling that to a roomful of alumni or parents,” H. Holden Thorp wrote.

Ian Bogost, distinguished chair at Georgia Tech, wrote in The Atlantic in June 2020: “The absurdity of a numerical ranking mechanism for colleges becomes apparent the moment you look at how U.S. News calculates it. The methodology reads like a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet: 8% for class size; 10% for high-school-class standing; 4.4% for first-to-second-year student retention, and so on.”

But just because the consensus leans toward “no” doesn’t mean it should be the last word on anyone’s ultimate decision about where to go to school.

Even U.S. News & World Report says on its best-colleges website: “The rankings provide a good starting point for students trying to compare schools. … The best school for each student, experts say, is one that will most completely meet his or her needs, which go beyond academics.”

What Are the College Rankings?

There is no single, ultimate, etched-in-stone set of college rankings. All over the world, there are entities using a wide array of criteria to appraise universities.

Rather than expecting a “yes” or “no” to the question of whether college rankings matter, it would be more beneficial to understand why “It depends” could be more appropriate.

If you’re aiming for an education from a prestigious school, and money is no object—well, first of all, congratulations and good luck.

Often, when college rankings come out from, for example, the National Center for Education Statistics—the primary federal entity for collecting, analyzing, and reporting data related to education in the United States and other nations—they’re looking at things like how future earnings from certain types of degrees from certain types of schools actually shake out along gender and other demographic lines.

In other words, they look at how college degrees pan out for real people in the real world.

But this is part of where “It depends” comes into play with assessing what the NCES or any other entity’s ratings say:

Do you know why you’re going to college, full stop? Do you know why you’re considering the schools you’re thinking about? Is how much you might earn from your degree a priority?

Is making the alumni connections that could set you up for success throughout your life the deciding factor?

Your answers to these questions—and more—may not be part of a college ranking list’s considerations whatsoever.

Before being inundated by college rankings and thinking about long-term goals and your budget, it probably would be wise to reflect on what you want out of a college.

It’s worth musing on your “best fit” college choices and how many schools to apply to.

While you’re doing so much big-picture thinking, it wouldn’t hurt to also give this ultimate college application checklist a glance as well.

Any decision about college likely will not be reached in a single sitting, so it’s also probably a good idea to bookmark and wade around in materials that even at first blush seem even halfway interesting or relevant.

Even if you wind up going with your first choice, in the end you’ll be able to feel that much more confident for giving the decision the deliberation it deserves.

What Really Matters

Although many groups rank colleges, commonly “college rankings” refers to the U.S. News & World Report list, which rewards graduation rates and reputation.

But there’s also The Princeton Review, which drills down on other factors like quality of life, extracurriculars, social scene, and town life—all aspects that reflect more on the student body being served than the quality of the institution.

Even these popular lists have no objective ultimate importance in your final decision—to wit, The Princeton Review also ranks “party schools,” a list “based on student ratings concerning the use of alcohol and drugs at their school, the number of hours they study each day outside of class time, and the popularity of fraternities/sororities at their school.”

Your mileage and what you are looking to get out of the college experience will most definitely vary.

If you have a lot of money, tons of connections, and a spotless academic record, then all things really are equal—you can probably pick any school you want.

But for others, who understand that all things are not equal, and are likely to have different priorities, it may be best to consider these lists at something of a distance.

If any of these lists and the metrics are appealing, that’s great. But make sure to read the fine print and think through the different standards of measurement—does reputation matter to all employers?

Is a small class size important to you when you understand that it can be a more intimate—but also potentially intimidating—learning environment?

Instead of placing absolute importance on any single, general list, it might be better to seek out lists more targeted to majors.

For example, use your favorite search engine to find lists of the best biology or microbiology programs.

Are you expecting to embark on a field where your future network will be important? Use that same method to find lists on the strength of different alumni networks.

Are you planning to go to grad school? If so, add “grad school” to those previous queries.

It’s helpful to look at and understand where value is being assigned on the broader lists, but the ones more directly related to your current goals are more likely to be more helpful—at least in terms of questions to ask academic or tuition advisors.

It might also be worth looking at 10 ways to prepare for college to help in brainstorming these kinds of questions.

The Bottom-Line Question

No discussion of college would be complete without touching on what you can afford to spend. Is $25,000, $50,000, or $100,000 or more in student loans worth it?

Projected earnings, length of education, and career choice can influence the answer.

Of people with $10,000 to $25,000 of student loan debt, 22% were behind on payments, but among those with $100,000 of student loan debt or more, only 16% were behind, according to a recent Federal Reserve survey of the economic well-being of U.S. households.

Applying for federal student aid via the FAFSA®—which considers eligibility for grants, federal student loans, and work-study programs—is the first step for most high school students planning to attend college, but even after scholarships, federal aid, and any college savings plans, many students come up short when all education expenses are tallied.

SoFi has several options for private student loans, which come with competitive rates, flexible repayment options, no origination or late fees, and a slew of benefits for SoFi members.

One of those perks is complimentary access to Edmit Plus, a tool that estimates financial aid, compares cost of attendance, and offers information about merit aid and scholarships available.

See if a private student loan from SoFi is a good fit.

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