Every year, list after list (after list) of college rankings come out, rating everything you can possibly compare on a campus, from colleges with the best Greek life to schools with the worst dining halls.
But while students love seeing which schools are “the best” in a given area, do rankings reflect the real experience you'll get at a college—or the real worth of a degree from a school?
Well, here’s your answer: some college rankings do reveal a kernel of truth about a school, but it's best to take them all with a grain of salt. College rankings should be a small piece of your college search puzzle (and a small factor in how you think about your college once you enroll).
When you’re looking at college lists and rankings, it’s important that you back up anything that matters to you with real facts and your own research. And while you shouldn't base your college search on what these lists reveal, they can act as a starting point in many instances. For example, if you're looking for a school that's especially good in biomedical engineering or in musical theater, college rankings might clue you in to some top programs. But then it's up to you to investigate more.
Some organizations issue “best of” lists every year taking into account different responses to answered surveys (and taking into account the incredible popularity of these lists). Organizations like U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Peterson’s—even this website—publish lists that range from the best liberal arts colleges to the best value colleges to the best college ski towns. And who wouldn’t want to go to one of the “best” colleges or universities? If you want a small business school that's great in actuarial mathematics, you might find one on a “best colleges” list—but here’s the thing: there are probably plenty of excellent programs at other schools that didn't make the list for one reason or another. They are also worth checking out! In fact, they might be a better fit for you than one of the "best" schools. And you can find them through your own detailed college research or perhaps by asking for recommendations from your guidance counselor, friends, and family.
And, sure, sometimes it’s just fun to look at schools that make these college lists for more unique or even weird reasons. There are lists for the Best Colleges for Surfing and the Most Sleep Deprived Schools in America. Most students are very interested in the food they will eat at school, so checking out schools with the Best Campus Food is a must for most. So are the schools with the Best College Dorms.
These lists and rankings do add some flair to both the college search process and the college experience once you are at school. After all, you could boast about your school's #1 ranking in business or being part of one of the happiest student bodies! (Or if your school gets a low ranking, you can all band together at the unjustness of it all!)
But all that fun stuff aside, here’s why you shouldn't rely solely on these lists to help you find a college: The data collection methods and response rates vary greatly from company to company. That can change results year over year and makes the actual lists impossible to compare equally. Sometimes different school representatives answer the surveys used to build the lists or a school might even skip a year, which can alter the results too. Remember, even the most egalitarian, well-researched, and good-intentioned college list out there is only a collection of data points. It’s never the full story about a college. And a college list will never beat a real college search. Never.
If one of these lists catches your eye, use it as a jumping off point to get to know the schools better, starting with online research and ideally working up to at least one in-person campus visit at your top choices. You can also talk with admission counselors and other students about the schools. This way you can get an honest feel for the colleges and universities on the list and see if they're actually a good fit for you. For example, if the school ranks high (or low) for campus food, get lunch there to see if you agree. If small class sizes and getting to know the professors is important to you, sit in on a couple of classes to see if your experience matches what the lists are saying. With some luck—and a lot of research—you'll find the ranking and your experience match up perfectly.