Controversial College Rankings a Huge Influence
Life + Money

Controversial College Rankings a Huge Influence

Harvard University

College rankings are becoming more important to high school students – even as experts caution that relying solely on such lists gives an incomplete picture of a college’s relative value.

Two-thirds of high school students take college rankings into account when making their college application decisions, up from less than half of students in 2002, according to a new report by the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm.

While the rankings do provide some useful information and can be a starting point for college-bound students, they leave out some vital factors, especially for those who are stretching financially or are taking out loans to pay for school, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.

“The rankings are completely devoid of economic information,” he says. “They’re a guide to college for consumption, but not as investment.”


More important than rankings, experts say, is a college’s graduation rate; its job placement rate; and whether a student can reasonably afford to attend. While some of that data has historically been difficult to come by, the demands for such information have become tough for schools to ignore. The rankings do take into account some traditionally important factors, such as the quality of the faculty and the student-to-teacher ratio.

President Obama in August called on the Department of Education to create a matrix to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures such as tuition, student debt and subsequent earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who graduate.

“The bottom line should not be how prestigious a school is,” says Alfred Poor, author of 7 Success Secrets That Every College Student Needs to Know! “The bottom line is whether you can get a job after you graduate, make a living and pay back your loans.”

Such financial factors have become increasingly important, as students and their families are shouldering a greater portion of college cost. About 60 percent of last year’s graduates had student debt, totaling an average $26,500 per student, according to a new report from the College Board.

Tuition and fees increased 2.9 percent at in-state public schools to $9,500 last year, the smallest increase in more than 30 years. Private school tuition rose 3.1 percent to $32,000. At 19 of the top 20 schools on the U.S. News list this year, tuition and fees total more than $40,000; however, many of those schools do offer aid packages—including grants, scholarships and financial aid, that bring those sticker prices down substantially.


An employer survey last year by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that “college reputation” ranked dead last among the factors companies consider when hiring a recent graduate. Instead, the most important factors were internships, employment during college, and choice of college major.

Among students who used college rankings in the selection process, the most popular source was the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings, cited as most influential by 58 percent. That was followed distantly by Princeton Review (21 percent) and Forbes Top Colleges (9 percent).

Beth Heaton, of the Boston-based College Coach, says such rankings attempt to offer a one-size-fits all solution to college selection, which should be a more individualized process. “The rankings’ methodology may not necessarily be your methodology,” she says. “Everyone has different criteria and different needs.”

The higher education industry has a love-hate relationship with the rankings, with many college officials publically rejecting the numbers but privately looking for ways to improve their own schools’ ranking – with some even going so far as falsifying the data they provide to the rankers.

More than half of college admissions officers don’t think that college rankings are effective at helping students find a good college fit, according to a study by Inside Higher Ed. In the same study, 93 percent of admissions officers said they thought other schools had falsely reported admissions data. The vast majority also believe that the rankers do not have systems in place to prevent such fabrication.


A high ranking can benefit the colleges. A one-rank improvement on the U.S. News list leads to an increase in applicants of 1 percent, according to a 2011 report by Harvard Business School. But U.S. News changes its methodology every year, making it difficult to compare a list from one year to the next. From 2012 to 2013, San Diego State University jumped 31 spots, while Howard plunged 38 places.

Experts worry that students will over-extend themselves financially to attend a better-ranked college, even though the long-term economic payoff does not make up for the increased cost. Carnevale notes that a student’s choice of major is even more important than their college selection.

“A petroleum engineering major is going to make a lot more money than a psych major without a graduate degree, no matter what school you go to,” Carnevale says.