Can You Trust College Rankings?

College student standing in front of books and shelves

College rankings lists are one of the most popular tools for choosing a college or university. It’s hard to miss the allure: they seem like such a tidy measure of a school’s value. But that’s exactly the trouble. Many prospective students think of college rank as a kind of scorecard, providing a school’s objective position. In reality, these lists can be highly subjective. 

So, should rankings be a part of your selection process? And how do college rankings work, anyway? Here’s a look behind the scenes — plus, how to use a rankings list the right way.

How are colleges ranked?  

College rankings are typically created by various organizations like U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, and Times Higher Education. These rankings typically come out once per academic year, using last year’s data to calculate current rankings. You can find lists for bachelor’s, doctorate, and graduate degrees, though we’ll be referring mostly to four-year programs in this guide. 

While each ranking system may have a slightly different methodology, they generally consider certain key criteria:

  • Academic reputation: This is a subjective measure often determined by surveys of college presidents, provosts, and deans, who rate institutions based on their overall academic quality. Some organizations also consider the number of citations per faculty member as a measure of how influential their work is.
  • Faculty resources: This includes metrics like student-faculty ratio, faculty salaries and qualifications, class size, and percentage of full-time faculty.
  • Student selectivity: Admissions statistics, including SAT scores, ACT scores, AP test scores, high school class ranks, and acceptance rates, are commonly used to assess the competitiveness of a college or university.
  • Retention rates and graduation rates: The percentage of students who stay enrolled past their first year — and who go on to graduate within a certain time frame — are considered indicators of a college’s commitment to student success.
  • Financial resources: Endowment per student, average financial aid awarded, and expenditure per student are considered measures of a college’s affordability, financial strength, and commitment to its students.
  • Alumni outcomes: Job placement rates, post-graduate salaries, and graduate school enrollment percentages provide insights into how well a college prepares its students for the future.
  • Student satisfaction: Surveys that gauge student satisfaction with academic programs, campus life, faculty interaction, and more can be used to evaluate the overall student experience.
  • Social mobility: Some lists, like the popular U.S. News rankings, include social mobility as a measure of a college’s value. This measures how dedicated a college is to graduating students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Can you trust college rankings?

While college rankings provide valuable insights, it is important to understand their limitations:


Different college-ranking organizations use different methodologies for calculating their rankings. Some may weigh academic reputation more heavily, while others might put more stock in student satisfaction. That’s up to each organization’s discretion, which is why these lists can be so subjective. 

Also keep in mind that different categories of schools — like Regional Universities, National Universities, and National Liberal Arts Colleges — are often ranked differently. 

Focus on traditional metrics 

Methodologies need regular updating. Some older formulas may focus on a college’s perceived prestige and ignore factors that matter to modern students — like community engagement, student mental health resources, or dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Reliance on self-reported data

College rankings rely heavily on self-reported data sources, i.e., information provided by colleges and universities. Each school has its own way of measuring things like student satisfaction and alumni success — and a strong bias to make such numbers look good. The inconsistent data collection can warp the final rankings.  

Lack of diversity

A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 73% of full-time American faculty were white. That’s a strong reflection of systemic inequalities in the U.S. educational system. It also means that college rankings — which are based on surveys and self-reported data from administrators — are likely to only demonstrate the experience of the white majority. So, if you’re a nontraditional student or a student of color, regard these rankings with a grain of salt.

Should you pick a school based on rankings? 

While college rankings can be a helpful tool in the college selection process, it is important to use them wisely. Choosing a college is probably one of the biggest decisions you’ve made thus far, and it shouldn’t be based on a single list or number. 

Prioritize personal fit 

Rankings tell you what an average student may experience — but not necessarily what you will experience. Before you get your heart set on Harvard or Stanford due to rankings alone, take a step back and consider what kind of college experience is important to you personally. 

That could include the school’s location, how urban or rural it is, or the vibrancy of campus culture. Financial aid is also a huge component. (Before you apply, be sure to read through Going Merry’s Financial Aid Guide for a full primer on what to look for in a school’s financials.) 

Finally, be sure to note any extracurricular activities or academic programs that are important to you. If the top-ranked college doesn’t have it, then it probably shouldn’t rank first in your book. 

For example, say you’re an extrovert who loves sports. You’re planning to be an entrepreneur, and you want to start networking ASAP. In your case, a university with a top-ranking football team, good business school, and active Greek life might be the best fit for you. 

Conversely, if you’re a studious bookworm, you might prefer a quiet campus and lower faculty-student ratio. In that case, a smaller college with strong research opportunities could be a better fit. 

Dig deeper

A college’s overall ranking only gives you a glossy, big-picture view of a school’s value. It won’t necessarily reflect your experience within a specific program or department. If you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for, search online for criteria like “Best English programs,” “Best HBCUs,” or “Best Colleges that Don’t Require Test Scores.” You’ll likely find rankings lists customized to your needs. 

Visit campuses

You probably wouldn’t marry someone before you went on a first date. Likewise, you shouldn’t lock in a serious four-year commitment until you’ve seen a school in person. Nothing beats a campus visit when it comes to getting a feel for a school’s culture and ethos. A college tour also gives you the opportunity to ask current students what campus life is really like. 

Consult multiple sources

Because each organization calculates college rank differently, it’s best to consult several sources to ensure a more comprehensive view. If a university is the top-ranked school on one list but 40th on another, it might not be that prestigious after all. Conversely, if a college is consistently in the top five from list to list, that’s probably a sign its rank is accurate.

Here are a few of the best college rankings sites to help you start your search: 

Once you’ve picked a few schools, do a side-by-side comparison. You can do this by making a spreadsheet and manually inputting each school’s rank, location, tuition cost, and other factors. Or, you can use an online platform like Going Merry’s College Cost Comparison tool

Pay less for college with Going Merry

College rank provides a highly generalized measure of a school’s worth. To determine its value to you personally, however, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. Identify what features and programs are most important to you. Then, look at department rankings, take a campus tour, and use an online college comparison tool like Going Merry to analyze the pros and cons.

Once you’ve picked a school, it’s time for the next step: figuring out how to pay for it. Streamline your financial aid journey by signing up for Going Merry. We offer a number of tools and services, including essay-writing resources, email templates, and a robust scholarship search platform, which gives you access to thousands of high-quality scholarships matched specifically to your profile. 

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.


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