Each September, the week the vaunted U.S. News and World Report college rankings come out, you’ll find parents looking over them anxiously. These rankings are critical for colleges too since universities vie for top spots on this widely-publicized evaluation. For parents and students, the report adds to the complexity of decision-making about college.

But the hoopla that surrounds the release of the U.S. News rankings is destructive to the college search process for many students: focusing their attention on criteria that don’t matter: obscuring the fact that fit matters much more than rank, and that fit can’t be measured by a single number.

U.S. News is Just One of Many College Rankings

In reality, U.S. News’ ranking is just one of many rankings. Each of them uses different ways of measuring quality. Here are some others:

  • The Washington Monthly puts out a respected ranking each year, which ranks universities based on three criteria: how good they are at driving social mobility (“recruiting and graduating low-income students”), producing high-quality research, and incentivizing service to the community.
  • The U.S. Department of Education puts out a comprehensive College Scorecard that measures how much students who attend each university earn 10 years after graduation, as well as how many graduate within six years of starting college.
  • Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce creates a ranking based on adjusting the Education Department’s scorecard data for factors such as the level of preparation of incoming students and the mix of majors at a university. This provides a measure of how much a university truly contributes to a student’s earning power. Data from these rankings is included in LifeLaunchr’s college databases.
  • The (London) Times’ World University Rankings rank the “world’s top 1,000 universities,” based on a number of criteria including teaching, research, and outlook.

The U.S. News and World Report rankings are widely used, but many experts criticize them for making college admissions more competitive and college more expensive. They have also been criticized for fueling social inequality. Since a college’s position on the U.S, News list is dependent on factors like the test scores of incoming students, the percentage of students admitted, and the amount of money spent on faculty salaries, it contributes to the rat race of college admissions for parents and students by making universities invite more applications. And it makes college more expensive by encouraging universities to focus on increased staff salaries. U.S. News has modified its processes in recent years, but the rankings still heavily favor colleges that do better by attracting the best-prepared students from wealthier schools and families.

How to Make Sense of College Rankings

As a parent or student, making sense of these rankings is difficult. It can be tempting to focus on prestige rankings like U.S. News’, if for no other reason than that they are an “objective” rating of universities and one that provides a way to judge one college against another. But for most families, fit matters more than rank. Focus on finding a college or university that is a great fit, and the student is much more likely to graduate, enjoy the experience, build a strong community of peers, and learn.

Finding a great fit means investing the time to learn more about each institution you’re considering. In many cases, having a coach can be very helpful.

Finding a great fit also means taking the time to understand your own criteria. These could include cost, location, programs offered, size, culture, and religious orientation. Tools like LifeLaunchr’s College Match can help you find colleges that match your criteria.

College can be a time of growth and transformation. So ask yourself what really matters to you instead of being seduced by arbitrary rankings. It’ll make the college experience truly special and rewarding.

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