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What do Best College Rankings Actually Measure?

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Mystified by what makes a “best” college? We take a look at the measurements behind the rankings.

If you’re a high school student or the parent of one, chances are you’ve stumbled upon a college ranking list at some point during your college search. Nearly every student and parent knows the U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings. You may have even browsed Times Higher Ed’s US College Rankings, The Princeton Review’s Best 382 Colleges, and Bloomberg’s Best Undergraduate Business Schools, among others. These major outlets often use similar indicators of academic excellence to produce their rankings, leading to a considerable amount of overlap in their results.


However, each outlet ultimately has its own unique approach for measuring a school’s value, and students and parents should always be aware of the specific methodology that was used to create each list. Let’s take a closer look!


Which Factors Influence a College Ranking?


To start, U.S. News, Times Higher Ed (THE), and Bloomberg all choose a select number of indicators (e.g., student-faculty ratio, acceptance rate) and then weight them based on their judgment of how important each indicator is. U.S. News, for example, weighs a college or university’s graduation and retention rates most heavily (22.5 percent of total score), undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent), faculty resources (20 percent), and student selectivity (12.5 percent).


Compare this with THE’s methodology, which cares less about a school’s academic reputation (10 percent compared to U.S. News’ 22.5 percent) and more about the value added by the school to a graduate’s salary (12 percent) and to his or her ability to repay student debt (seven percent). THE also takes into account the student and faculty diversity of a school (three percent each), which U.S. News leaves out altogether.


These differences in methodology lead to small but perceptible differences in results. Princeton University, which is currently ranked #1 by U.S. News, drops to #9 in THE’s list. This is because Princeton’s 6.4 percent acceptance rate, which factors into U.S. News’ measure of student selectivity, doesn’t have as much cachet in THE’s list, which doesn’t consider student selectivity at all. In explaining the rationale for this omission, THE’s Phil Baty says, “Rather than using metrics that reward colleges for raising barriers to entry, Times Higher Education… developed a ranking that recognizes the value of schools that knock those barriers down.”


Other contrasts include the University of Chicago (#3 in U.S. News’ list, #11 in THE’s list) and Vanderbilt (#14 and #21, respectively). Overall, however, THE’s rankings are fairly similar to those of U.S. News. Although the two outlets weigh slightly different indicators of academic excellence, they often agree in their definition of a “good” school. Both outlets, for example, place emphasis on a school’s resources, as per-student spending often indicates how well a school is able to meet a student’s academic needs. If you’re particularly concerned about a school’s diversity and/or financial return, you’re probably better off consulting THE over U.S. News. In general though, most of the information will be similar across both outlets.


Bloomberg’s “Best Undergraduate Business Schools” and The Princeton Review’s “Best 382 Colleges,” however, are significantly different from U.S. News’ rankings because they factor in vastly different indicators, offer more specific information, and cater to particular audiences. Bloomberg, for example, is much more career oriented in measuring a school’s value, and is a good resource for students who already know they want to pursue a career in business or who view college as merely a stepping stone to a lucrative career. According to Bloomberg’s metric, 40 percent of a college’s total score is based on employer surveys, 35 percent on student surveys, 15 percent on its graduates’ starting salary, and 10 percent on whether its students have at least one internship during college. Because Bloomberg only looks at a college or university’s business school, its list features some names that are not typically mentioned in more comprehensive ranking systems. Boston College, for instance, is ranked #32 by U.S. News, but its Carroll School of Management takes #3 on Bloomberg’s list.


Like Bloomberg’s “Best Undergraduate Business Schools,” The Princeton Review’s “382 Best Colleges” features schools that don’t typically make it into other ranking systems. “382 Best Colleges” is a particularly unique resource because—rather than having a comprehensive ranking system like U.S. News, THE, and Bloomberg—it offers 62 different ranking lists, each concerned with a specific aspect of campus life. Each list uses student surveys to report the top 20 colleges in a particular category. The categories vary widely, from Most Accessible Professors to Happiest Students to Best College Newspaper. Because of the lists’ specificity, they’re best thought of as a secondary resource, as a way of narrowing down the list of schools you’re interested in, rather than as a way of generating it. Certainly not all of these categories will be important or even relevant to you, but some might be surprisingly useful in your college search. For example, other ranking systems typically don’t take into account categories like Most Liberal Students, Most Conservative Students, Most Politically Active, Most LGBTQ-Friendly, and Most Race-Class Interaction. These qualities could be significant aspects of one’s college experience, and they might make a big difference in one’s sense of belonging and community.


How Should You Interpret the Rankings for Your Own College Search?


Trying to determine which schools are better (read: better for you) than others is a daunting task, and ranking systems like the ones we’ve discussed are appealing because they, in a sense, do the work for you. They quantify the value of a college or university in a way that feels final and conclusive. However, “better” is ultimately an ambiguous term that you should define for yourself rather than relying on a list to define it for you.


Ranking systems can be useful tools during your college search, but they can also be controversial. To get the most out of them, always look up the methodology behind the rankings, and make sure the assigned weights reflect your own values about what a good college should offer. Remember that you don’t have to agree with a particular ranking, even if it happens to be the most popular or widely used. As conclusive as they may appear to be, ranking systems should ultimately be a starting point rather than an end to your college search.

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