March 2024

Can You Trust College Rankings When Choosing Where to Apply?

Ever wonder how the US News and World Report select which university is the best in the nation? You would hope that the researchers would create algorhythms to consider a wide range of factors to fairly determine this elite ranking.

But no. Critics in the past two decades have exposed just how ratings can be easily manipulated by the colleges themselves. In order to boost their rankings, colleges simply increase the volume of students who apply. To do this, many colleges target applicants who are unqualified students and entice them with free application fees.

Stanford University, Reed College, and others have openly criticized ranking colleges based on the fact that it is impossible to objectively determine subjective characteristics such as “reputation,” which comprises 25% of the ranking.

Another factor includes emphasizing research expenditures (grants and contracts) to determine the scientific accomplishment rather than considering the importance and impact of scientific discoveries.

Today, US News and World Report sells “badges” to colleges for thousands of dollars so they can post their shiny badges on their website, citing their ranking. US News started selling badges in 2010, and they now have more than 130 categories for undergraduate and graduate programs.

Do the math: 4400 colleges times $20,000 (badge costs are from $8000 to upwards of $32,000 per year) equals hypothetically 88 million dollars per year.

Many colleges are opting out of playing the ranking game, especially many in the top 200. For those colleges, they already have the reputation and they use other marketing strategies to keep them in the news.

But for smaller colleges, they struggle to get the incoming student yields they need so many colleges are compelled to pay outlandish digital marketing license fees.

With over 4400 colleges and universities in the United States, selecting the best-fit college for undergraduates and graduates can be daunting. While we all know about 200 of the well-known colleges that seemingly everyone aspires to each year – Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton – making this decision can be stressful to every college-bound student.

With the high cost of a college education, parents are pushing their children to major in fields that will give them the best opportunity to secure high-paying jobs in a lucrative market.

Where they get their training (undergraduate degree) often plays an important role in getting into grad schools or setting course for a successful career. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are highly sought after, and as a result, are the most competitive to get into at the top universities.

A quick Google search for the best colleges in specific fields will send students and parents to college-ranking programs like the US News and World Report.

By searching for “Best Colleges” you can select from among several lists such as National Universities, Liberal Arts Universities, Engineering, Top Public Schools, Regional Colleges, and more. But don’t let the allure of the rankings mislead you.

Rather than choosing colleges based on their rankings, choose colleges based on the academic departments you are interested in studying.

Check the specific major(s) at each of the colleges at the top on your list. Then drill down to see the lower-division and upper-division requirements, and the options for electives. Check out their research, internship, capstone (senior project), and other opportunities.

Then look at the general education requirements. Consider other majors that you may want to explore and possibly audit classes to expand your knowledge. By taking these easy steps, you’ll create a list of excellent colleges that will give you the skills and foundation you need.

While making one of the most important decisions in your life, research and compare colleges based on which colleges offer you the best selection of courses and options.

Visit the colleges and take tours, or scour their websites and take virtual tours. If you succumb to the rankings, just take them with a grain of salt.

Susan Tatsui-D’Arcy is the founder of Merit Academy (one-on-one classes) and Merit Educational Consultants (college and educational advisory). She has written books on projects, free child care, education, and parenting. Susan hosts TEDxMeritAcademy for students to present their innovative projects and solutions. In 2019, she was California Mother of the Year.

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