College Rankings

The 2021 U.S. News rankings of the best colleges was released last week. This year’s list marks the publication’s 36th edition of the annual college ranking tradition.

The list is designed to help prospective students and parents make better informed decisions about choosing a college based on a number of criteria, such as campus life, school value, tuition and school location and size.

This year, U.S. News altered a few of their scoring metrics to include graduation rates, graduate indebtedness, retention rates and social mobility indicators. Additionally, with many schools moving to test optional in the wake of the novel COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. News now includes test-blind schools in their rankings, where they were excluded in previous years. Therefore, in total, U.S. News ranks colleges on 17 factors in order to create a comprehensive list.

U.S. News created a variety of lists in order to provide the most inclusive insight into the nuances within the world of higher education. For example, the lists can be filtered into categories such as National Liberal Arts Colleges, Business Programs, Engineering schools, Most Innovative, Social Mobility, Top Public Schools, Best Value Schools, Colleges for Veterans, etc. The list that creates the most buzz annually, though, is of course the comprehensive list of the best national universities, in which the Ivy Leagues usually come out on top. This year was no different; the top three national universities according to U.S. News were Princeton, Harvard and Columbia.

U.S. News is a good source for finding reliable data on colleges across the U.S. With their U.S. News College Compass, you can gain extra information on confusing topics within college admissions such as a breakdown of standardized test scores at specific schools, application deadline tracking help, alumni salary data by major and an examination of the populations within each school receiving financial aid.

But, while they are certainly a reputable and valuable source, U.S. News isn’t the only publication known for their college ranking system. The Wall Street Journal follows a similar ranking model, which is just as informative. The Journal bases its ranking system off of four categories—student outcomes (including graduates’ salaries and debt), academic resources (including how much the college spends on teaching), student engagement (whether or not students feel prepared to use their education outside of the classroom) and learning environment (the diversity of the student body and academic staff).

When perusing these college rankings lists, it’s important to remember that both the U.S. News and the Wall Street Journal base their decisions on different criteria. U.S. News is much more financially preoccupied than the Journal, and their rankings are perhaps more grounded in hard numbers. The Wall Street Journal tends to think more broadly about the college experience itself in terms of the types of experiences students will have on campus. They consider factors like diversity and student engagement more comprehensively than U.S. News. Because their ranking systems are unique, both publications resulted with different outcomes—the Wall Street Journal awarded their top three national college rankings to Harvard, MIT and Yale.

College rankings lists are useful tools for getting greater insight and more in-depth data on schools. But they should be taken with a grain of salt. The numbers that result from a calculation of several key factors don’t necessarily reflect the entire student body. For example, the average financial aid given at a particular school might not be the financial aid you’ll receive. The average salary of recent graduates isn’t necessarily the salary you’ll make after graduating. There are a lot of nuances that go into choosing a college, so don’t let a ranking system make or break your decision. As a college consultant who works with students to build a solid college list, I’m wary of relying too much on these rankings. The rankings don’t cover every program or opportunity, they don’t account for the “feel” of a campus, and most importantly, they don’t consider you, the student, who is the biggest contributor to your own success.

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