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Do College Rankings Matter?

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

Written by LAUNCH co-founder Sara Bittner

Back in the Stone Age (or early 2000s), when my sister was deciding where to go to college, the first thing my mom did was buy a guide to all the colleges and universities in the US. Seems practical right? Not so much.

That thing was the size of a phone book, and the universities were listed arbitrarily. Either straight alphabetical order, region, or sports conference? It doesn’t matter. You can’t ctrl+F a book, or sort results by price (low to high). The information was printed, and it was up to you to find what you needed and make a choice. Except, sorting through a book with hundreds, if not thousands of colleges and universities was daunting. It has been this way for quite some time, and when people can’t sort through all the information presented to them, they trust someone else to evaluate the data for them. Since 1983, for many Americans, this has been the US News & World Report’s Best Colleges list.

College rankings
USNWR is the standard for University rankings

How do College Rankings Work?

The Best College list as reported by the US News & World Report weights and combines 16 different factors to rank colleges. Some of these factors are objective and can be externally verified, but other factors, such as test scores and GPAs of admitted applicants, rely on confidential information. This information is self-reported by universities and as we found out in the recent University of Oklahoma case, this information is not always submitted honestly and accurately.

Still, other factors can be gamed to increase ratings; university spending per student, for example, is easy to increase by upholding costly, inefficient amenities. Universities know how their admission decisions impact their ranking, and do everything in their power to game the system to their advantage. Unfortunately, this often leads universities to lie about the real statistics of their incoming freshman class.

Many of the ranking factors also adversely affects racially and economically diverse student bodies. One such example being alumni giving. Intended to measure how satisfied students were with their college experience, it is easy to inflate by admitting wealthier students who come from a higher income bracket family before entering college, as it is safe to assume they will remain wealthy and in a position to donate to the school. Students from a lower socio-economic status are more likely to graduate with student loan debt and less likely to afford sizable donations. Therefore, schools serving a highly socio-economically diverse student body may rank lower, which fortifies the higher rankings of the schools with wealthier student bodies.

I could go down the list of factors of USNWR and explain how the ranking method is adversely affecting college admissions, but that isn’t necessarily helpful, not to mention a big downer. Where can families turn to find the information to help them make this decision? LAUNCH is here to help guide you and provide you shortcuts to discovering better measures for US universities.

Other Ways to Evaluate a School

One answer is the National Survey of Student Engagement. Instead of collecting data from university administrations, the NSSE surveys undergraduate students in areas proven to have a positive influence on student outcomes. Most notably? The NSSE does not support the use of their data to rank colleges and universities. Using student surveys provides you advice from students who are living the experience in the classroom, lab, field, dorm, etc., which is what you pay for as a parent.

At LAUNCH, we comb through these data points in order to carefully curate the list of recommended colleges, and might draw your attention to a school you might not have considered if all you had been looking at is the USNWR rankings. In addition, we love reading students' reviews (both good AND bad) on and about the school culture in the Fiske Guide to Colleges. By using multiple touch points instead of pure rankings, we guide families in developing a better idea of the schools, their communities, cultures and priorities, and the likelihood of post-graduate success. #dreamlaunchsoar



LAUNCH co-founder Sara Bittner
Sara Bittner

Sara is a co-founder of LAUNCH education consultants as well as a guidance and community coach. She specializes in American east-coast schools, student-athletes, expat and third culture families, and application essays. In her free time, she enjoys reading, biking, and fitness. She currently resides in the Netherlands with her husband and two children.

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