College rankings: credible or incomplete?

A reliable indicator

Yes, college rankings carry significance and yes, they can often indicate future success. It is only natural to categorize things in our lives by quantity and quality.

A look at the U.S. News 2019 National University Rankings reveals a list of familiar names: Yale, Princeton and even top tier public universities such as UCLA fill the top 20 roster. Almost everyone strives to be in one of these schools, for just cause. According to a 1999 paper in “The Journal of Human Resources,” professionals who attended top-rated universities consistently earned higher wages than their counterparts in bottom-rated universities. This disparity is most pronounced in the class of 1980, in which alumni from top-rated private universities earned, on average, 20 percent more than students of bottom-rated public schools.

These results are often attributed to the high-caliber education and widespread recognition that accompanies elite universities. When I hear a person graduated from an elite university, my impression of him or her changes, almost always for the better. The same is true for employers. When it comes down to identifying superior job candidates, an applicant’s alma mater plays a crucial part in selection for higher paying and selective employment.

It’s true that success depends on many factors with college playing only one role. Also, there are many arguably more consequential factors, such as privilege, personality and work ethic. Additionally, not all ranking services use the same scale, which can lead to inconsistency: U.S. News tends to focus on reputation, Forbes emphasizes financial success, Niche looks at college life and a variety of services report on other aspects such as diversity and cost. Furthermore, college rankings are subjective; they are opinionated standards instead of concrete, indisputable measurements of a school’s quality.

However, when services compile a list of university rankings, they typically do it to create a holistic view of the college experience based on the school to help students find their best fit. All three of the resources above pride themselves on judging based on objective calculations and expansive information. According to Niche, “choosing a college is one of the most important decisions most students will make.” Their aim is to create a tool for students. If quality is paramount to determining your dream school, it is definitely worth your time to consider rank.

The rank of the university can often represent the qualities of the school a student works toward. Whether those qualities are knowledge, reputation or higher wages, a college’s rank testifies to its strengths and weaknesses in any given area. It sets a real, quantifiable statistic for us to work toward. To me, the college you go to and its quality are the culmination of all of the effort we put in during our four-year high school career.

One size does not fit all

Ask any student on campus about his or her dream college, and you are probably going to hear prestigious schools such as Harvard, Stanford and Princeton. However, ask the same student why he or she would like to go to that school, and the student will probably give a vague response about how the school is so well-known. 

This is the type of behavior that college rankings provided by U.S. News and Niche promote. Students blindly strive for admission into top-rated colleges without considering if they’re truly the best fit for them. As a result, students view the college admissions process not as a way of finding out which school best matches their specific wants and needs but rather as a way to win a “prize.”

The college ranking system assumes that there is a one-size-fits-all for choosing the perfect college for a student. It is implied that the college ranked number one is supposedly the “best” university for any student. However, we know this is not the case. Some students may prefer learning environments that an elite college cannot offer, such as a more tightly-knit community, closer teacher-student bonds and a more casual atmosphere. Because of the limiting nature of college ranking services, these factors can never comprehensively be considered in websites such as U.S. News or Niche. Thus, these services may not be the best resources to guide a student on his or her college decision. At their worst, these ranking services may even mislead a student by causing him or her to place emphasis on the wrong thing—the rank of the college rather than how well the school fits the student personally.

While the rank of a college may be an indicator of the educational quality of the college (no one can deny that top-tier colleges can be helpful learning environments), solely looking at the statistics provided by ranking services will not account for the subtle differences in each student. This is because ranking services use their own personal algorithms to calculate the “quality of a college.” For example, according to, U.S. News favors private universities over public universities because private schools tend to be more selective, have higher student retention rates and feature smaller classroom sizes. However, the factors that U.S. News deem “important” may not align with a prospective student’s own personal wants. Some students may prefer public universities for its larger student population, greater class sizes and lower tuition. Ranking services attempt to provide an accurate and universal measure of a school’s quality, but the fact is every student has his or her own unique preferences that cannot easily be captured by numbers and statistics.

There are certainly merits to these ranking resources. They provide students with easily accessible information to consider when applying, such as demographics of the school, tuition and expenses, campus safety and clubs that the school offers. However, when applying, students should strive to look beyond how high colleges are ranked and focus more on the learning environment and the community.

By Ethan Park and Raymond Dunn, Opinion editors
Editorial Cartoon by Justine Constantino