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Don’t Select Colleges Based on a Magazine’s Rankings

If you’ve been college shopping, then you know that U.S. News & World Report publishes a much-anticipated annual edition that ranks all American colleges and universities. The magazine has been compiling college rankings for years because this enables them to cross-sell other publications and gain new subscribers.

At IvySelect, we find the U.S. News college rankings issue to be useful as a source of certain comparative metrics. However, as college consultants specializing in Ivy League and other elite colleges, we advise our clients that the best way to select colleges is to ignore the magazine’s rankings and do your own research about the characteristics of each school. Then rank colleges, using your own criteria, based on their fitness for you.

When purchasing a product like a car, a television, or an appliance, a guide to decision-making like Consumer Reports can come in handy. They conduct comparative analyses and tests, clearly describe their methodology and criteria, and then rank the alternatives from the best buy on down. It is, however, an understatement to point out that choosing a college is not the equivalent of, say, buying a new mobile phone. This is because the best school for Student X is probably not the best school for Student Y. Yet U.S. News ranks American colleges and universities as if key elements of their missions, methods, physical characteristics, student body attributes, and learning environments were irrelevant features instead of key elements of each unique institution.

Our proven ability to guide students through the thicket of third-party analyses such as U.S. News is one of the reasons to hire IvySelect. We assure that your college selection and admissions process produces the optimal outcome for you as an individual.

The following information about the U.S. News rankings should be considered before relying on their findings in building your list of targeted colleges.

U.S. News has developed an algorithm to determine which schools are best. However, the factors that are most heavily weighted in their calculation are subjective in nature. For example, a measure indicating undergraduate academic reputation, which currently comprises almost one-fourth of the ranking criteria, is determined through an opinion survey of college administrators and academics as well as high school guidance counselors who are part of the evaluative process for just National Liberal Arts Colleges and National Universities. The survey is not scientific, so the results are insufficiently reliable.

U.S. News works hard to give the appearance that the results reflect a rigorous analysis of institutions. A reader is led to conclude that there are sound reasons why Williams is the best liberal arts college, Swarthmore is 6 positions better than Claremont-McKenna, and that Bowdoin, Middlebury, Pomona, and Wellesley have been so precisely measured that they are all tied for 4th place in this category. Given their methodology, this degree of pseudo-exactitude is bold indeed. The algorithm includes arbitrarily weighted, non-objective measures that the magazine’s editors deem appropriate. They are far from the only measures that college admissions consulting professionals like IvySelect consider to be reflective of an institution’s overall quality.

Also, it should be noted that the U.S. News rankings may be manipulated by college administrations that are so inclined.  There have been documented cases of colleges using advertising to increase the number of applications submitted to them. This effectively lowers their percentage of applicants admitted and raises their selectivity level. People who trust the rankings are deceived and, what’s worse; many students who were underqualified for admission were induced to submit doomed applications. Some colleges have solicited nominal donations from alumni to improve their “alumni-giving” statistic, which is among the ranking factors.  There are examples of colleges interfering with students who wish to register for required courses in order to lower class sizes for the purpose of raising the school’s rankings.  On occasion, it has been discovered that some colleges simply report false numbers to U.S. News.

These corner-cutting methods cause some students to make college choices that are based on false, inaccurate, or misleading information.  You may feel that the elite colleges that you plan to target would not engage in such disreputable behavior, but the list of schools that are not averse to “playing” U.S. News might surprise you.

The U.S. News ranking system focuses on statistics and conditions affecting applicants and the current student body.  They are unable to empirically assess each school’s relative success in the most important reason for attending a college — the impact on the rest of the your life. It’s not possible to measure knowledge gained, but it is possible to ascertain post-graduate employment in a relevant field and earnings over, say, the first 10 years after graduation. Such as answer is not easy to find, but is not a metric in the U.S. News system.

Students and their families should use college rankings, if at all, simply as a handy digest of information about colleges.  Instead, you should spend time collecting information that reflects academic quality and educational outcomes. The goal is not to find the most prestigious or highest ranked college… it’s about finding the right college for you. You can read more about our philosophy by going to the College List tab of the IvySelect website.

Your IvySelect college admissions counselor will spend time with you to learn your plans, profile, and personal preferences. With this information, we help you identify those colleges that fit you best and, in doing so, we take the pain out of the selection process. You’ll be confident that your targeted colleges are all great matches for you no matter where they are ranked by a magazine.