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  • Writer's pictureMike Bink

The Truth Behind College Rankings

U.S. News & World Report recently released their annual rankings. Many schools are quick to reference these in their marketing to families, as many families place a lot of importance on these rankings in their college search. We get it. As parents in today's world, things are so busy that we have to look for easy ways to cut through all the noise to make the best decisions for our kids and family as we can, and on the surface, college rankings like this would seem like a good way to help us do that. However, these rankings are problematic.

What's the problem with the rankings?

As critics point out, the ranking method values "wealth, reputation and exclusivity more than economic mobility" and what is best for your child. FairTest described them as a "garbage in, garbage out exercise". For example, one key element is the subjective reputation survey sent to more than "4,000 college presidents, provosts and admission deans" asking them to rate the quality of their peer universities. This element counts for 20% of the formula! Recently, the president of Princeton University decided not to fill out the survey. citing that he felt utterly unqualified to judge a prominent Southern college he had never visited.

"The formula also factors in faculty resources, including salaries and class size (20 percent), and per-student spending (10 percent), all of which is influenced heavily by institutional wealth. SAT and ACT scores of incoming students, plus their high school class standing, count for 7 percent, and alumni giving rates count for 3 percent."

In recent years, U.S. News has attempted to include student outcomes in their formula, but that piece is only 40% of the total. The other 60% is highly influenced by money and pure reputation!

This recent blog from Georgia Tech's Admission Department summed it up nicely.

Columbia University made big news as an example of the problem with self-reported data.

They dropped from number 3 to number 18 because a Columbia math professor exposed serious problems with the numbers that his employer reported to U.S. News. Oddly, U.S. News does not check the data submitted to them. They "rely on schools to accurately report their data."

Why do we continue to use them?

People are still tied up in prestige, labels/names, and “perceived quality”. The marketing message of a rankings list is perfectly teed up for the media to grab on to and run with. U.S. News is a media company, after all.

What can families do instead?

What we all want is for our kids to be in the program at the university that is right for OUR KID. The only way to get to that is by starting with the real criteria that define the experience OUR KID is seeking. During that phase of the process, there is no discussion of colleges. This “what is right for ME” phase can be followed by some college searching using those criteria. We recommend to our clients that they and their students read books like Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be, to level set what the college experience should entail for their students.

No one wants a child to select a college because of its name and “perceived quality” only to get there and realize that it’s not the right place for them.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get caught up in the marketing materials that come in the mail, the emails urging your child to consider XYZ college, and our “preconceived notions of quality” that come from rankings and the college names we’ve heard for years. But if you jump ahead to looking at colleges without knowing what you and your student are truly looking for, the process can and will get cloudy, confusing, murky, and off-track.

If you have questions about your student's school list and the best ways to build a list of schools that are both a good academic and financial fit, we are here to help! Schedule a call with us today to speak with our team!



Mike Bink, AAMS®, CCFS®

Mike works with families to simplify the college funding process and is widely recognized as an expert in college planning. He is passionate about empowering families to become informed consumers of higher education so that they don't pay a penny more for college than they absolutely have to.

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