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A Director’s Opinion on College Rankings

Posted on: September 7th, 2012 by Lori Greene

Alas, one of my favorite topics. Okay, not really, but why not dive in?

People ask about my thoughts on college rankings from time to time. Searching Google for “college rankings” just now, I am not surprised that U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review top the list. It’s also not surprising that for this time of the year, four of the top ten headings happen to be about college football rankings. Should USC or Alabama be #1? I’m a huge college football fan, but I commit to not publicly voicing my opinion on these particular rankings.

Really though, everyone has a different point of view on college rankings. Parents want to see rankings by category. Students like applying to one or even a few of the “top” schools in the country. College counselors try to ensure that their students are looking at what is important to them in a college experience rather than just a ranking. University administrators are keen to note that some rankings include areas that universities are constantly striving to improve. College admission officers use rankings to educate prospective students and parents about some of the strengths of their university.

However, I am hopeful that most people recognize that college rankings aren’t the best source to help a student find his or her best match or “fit.”

Rankings may be a good start to the conversation, but ideally, a student (and parents) should also become familiar with locations of schools, size, public vs. private, acceptance rates, cost, etc. One should also keep in mind that in general, rankings don’t change much over the years, so there are many great schools to choose from that might go unnoticed if you only looked at the rankings. To that point, I read an article this morning that noted that since 1996, fewer than 50 colleges have been in the top 40 for U.S. News and World Report. That’s a pretty limited view for a first-time, 18-year-old, college-bound student who really has countless choices with many schools that might be a great match.

As a Director of Admission, I admit it’s an added bonus to move up in the rankings. I certainly don’t wait for the different sources to publish rankings, but I am happy to see that our long-term community efforts and investments pay off for future students. Unfortunately, students and families considering college rankings don’t look at these with the perspective of seeing progression. They are looking at a snapshot in time as defined by one instrument or survey—and other rankings may differ depending on what and how questions are asked.

I am hopeful that prospective students might look to rankings to get started, but they should be asking themselves the important questions that will truly help them make their college choice.

  • Does the college offer my major?
  • Will I receive an education that prepares me for my next step, whether it involves graduate or professional school or a particular career track?
  • Will the overall experience stack up to my expectations?
  • Will I earn ‘real world experience‘ while taking classes?
  • Will the connections and friendships I make stay with me throughout my lifetime?
  • Are there on-campus activities that interest me?
  • Is there an on-campus office that can help me study abroad for a semester?
  • Is it a supportive campus environment—what kinds of services are offered to students?
  • What type of scholarships and/or financial aid may be available over the next four years?
  • And after visiting, a very important question: Can I picture myself here?

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