Understanding College Rankings

Forget Letterman's Top 10 list. Don't give another thought to this week's list of must-have CDs. If you're pondering life after high school, the only lists that really ought to be taking up head space are the American college ranking lists. They're the annual list of all the colleges and universities in the United States, rated according to very strict sets of standards and criteria.

Right about now you may be thinking to yourself: "What do I need a formal ranking list for? I can make up my own mind. I don't need someone I don't even know telling me which school is best."

That's actually a good way to think. While rankings are helpful in providing an overview of the best schools, they are not necessarily the best tool to determine which school is best for you. So you are right in thinking a list or ranking system can't dictate how and where to spend your valuable tuition dollars.

Ultimately, you are the one seeking and getting a higher education, and you are the one who should be making that all-important life choice. But since the range of college choices is so incredibly large, some help could be, well, helpful!

College rankings systems can provide that help. "Rankings are irresistible and inescapable," says Marisa Ostroff, a college and career center counselor.

"There seems to be an emotional and intellectual need [for these rankings] that is real. Rankings have led students and parents to discoveries. They seem to gain a wider perspective and are able to better connect the puzzle of college selection."

She also credits these rankings with "demystifying the admissions process and...creating a common vocabulary for parents, students, counselors and universities."

In other words, rankings help expose, explain and rate schools using the same standards or guideposts right across the board.

High school counselor Brenda Melton agrees that ranking systems can be crucial eye-openers. "College ranking systems are an exploration guide for students who are seeking outstanding postsecondary education in their chosen career field. By comparing rankings, students have a perspective of the credibility of their [prospective] college or university," says Melton.

But that doesn't mean rankings are the be-all and end-all of the tricky college selection process. Sometimes the information gathered by these rankings systems, and even how this information is gathered, can be a bit misleading.

Ostroff points to one of the most influential ranking systems (U.S. News and World Report) as an example of this potential flaw with the rankings system.

She says this particular system places too much importance on things such as tuition and reputation. On the other hand, this same system places too little importance on what she and other educators consider truly important issues, namely how much money the schools actually spend on preparing students, and asking students how they rate the education they received at these particular schools.

"The difficult-to measure concept of institutional reputation is another special concern, especially when the figures keep changing," she adds.

Students should also be aware of the fact that these rankings may not represent all their postsecondary options. Some colleges, for example, decide they don't want to be included, and so refuse to participate. Some of these colleges claim numbers and statistics only represent part of the "best of the bunch" picture.

Ostroff explains that some people believe colleges should be rated according what students learn, and how they use the knowledge they've gained.

If the general consensus is that rating systems can indeed be helpful, which one listing should you rely on? According to Barbara Blackburn, a high school counselor, look inward first.

"Various sources rank colleges for various reasons, like highest rate of acceptance into postgrad professional programs, best overall buy...."

She recommends that students start by pinpointing their own wants and needs. If you don't yet know your major, an overall, general ranking list would be appropriate.

"If you know you definitely want to go to medical school, then looking at a ranking of schools that produces a large percentage of successful med school admissions would be best," says Blackburn.

Ostroff recommends U.S. News and World Report as a convenient one-stop shop because it includes many statistics in handy table forms, allowing parents and students to compare the academic quality of schools. The expansive list, especially if it's checked early on in the college selection process, can help readers zero in on schools with specific criteria they need and want.

"Scanning the list may also result in learning about schools which were never considered or even heard of," says Ostroff. She also agrees with Melton, who says visiting the campus -- online or in person -- and having a personal interview with the college staff is critical to making that final decision.

Finally, Ostroff offers this priceless bit of advice: "Not every college or university is the right fit; therefore, beginning the college entrance process early will help eliminate any disappointment. It is very important to realize that fit should be chosen over prestige. There are many schools where students can be very successful."