The True Value of National Rankings in Your College Search

The hotly debated "college rankings" aren't the final say in college success. One passionate higher education professional shares the reasons why with you.

We exist in a name-brand obsessed culture, which creates stress-inducing media headlines every year when high school seniors are creating their prospective colleges list. Articles and blogs tend to highlight only the attention-grabbing results of a very narrow band of highly selective college admission decisions, which are then translated by most students into “I’ll never get in anywhere!”

If you had to choose a spouse or partner for life, would you use a publication ranking them by income, IQ scores, and reputation as reported by others who have never met the person? As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing things like electronics and cars; the college search requires a more thoughtful, personal, and time-consuming approach. Let’s explore why the college search is so much more than brand names and rankings.

The college search and your self-inventory

The reason college search can’t be reduced to rankings with numerical values is because it requires starting with you—individual student—and why you’re going to college, which includes factors like your needs and desires and your learning styles and interests. This self-inventory is the start of finding colleges that “fit” the individual, instead of starting with the assumption that only the “Top 20” on college-ranking lists have any value. These ranking guides sell big, but their value, or lack thereof, in the college search process can certainly be diminished if students, parents, and counselors go after fit, rather than name recognition.

Related: How to Build the Perfect College List in High School

The flaws of college rankings

One of the biggest flaws in starting the college search process by using ranking lists is that they tout the entering class statistics, rather than focusing on what happens during the four years those students are enrolled. The late author Loren Pope, of Looking Beyond the Ivy League and Colleges That Change Lives, said choosing a college based on the entering statistics of the freshman class is like choosing a hospital based on the health of those in the ER—it’s the treatment that matters, and when it comes to colleges, the treatment is what happens between the first year and graduation.

Do a little research into colleges based on student outcomes, and you’ll find it’ll highlight many colleges that outperform the Ivies and other assorted “name brands” but don’t have the benefit of name recognition. NSSE, The National Survey of Student Engagement, is a wonderful resource for gathering information about college outcomes and provides a list of the right questions to ask during the college search.

Find the value in others’ college experiences

To counteract the notion that “a college can’t be any good if I’ve never heard of it”—another familiar student opinion—think about the people in your life who are happy and successful, and if they went to college, find out where. Even research where celebrities went to college. You’ll discover that most often the choice of college has less to do with success in life than it does the experience and the opportunities students take advantage of during those college years, coupled with personal qualities and traits.

Employers and graduate schools are looking for outstanding skills and experience, not college pedigree. On the flip side of the process I pose this question to students: “Would you want college admission deans to ignore your application and the chance to learn all about your background and talents, only because they have not heard of your high school?” This question usually helps students to see that in looking beyond name recognition when searching for colleges, they’ll leave themselves open to more possibilities for colleges that will be a great fit for them.

Related: The Best (and Worst) College Advice

The simple truth is that the majority of the colleges and universities in this country admit more students than they deny. The college search process should be an enjoyable and memorable experience, not an exercise to be dreaded! This is not a trophy hunt, with a “winner takes all” philosophy. If you’re worried about your chances for college admission and you’re willing to investigate beyond the very narrow band of highly visible colleges, you’ll find that many options lead to both a great fit and a lifelong passion for learning.

If you appreciate the value of a good list to complement your college search, check out our Lists & Rankings section for all kinds (not just name-brand schools)! 

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