Understanding College Rankings


September is college rankings season. Across the world websites and newspapers publish stories about the rankings of colleges and universities, some focus on specific countries like the US and UK, others claim to tell you which are the ‘best’ in the world.

While there are many other factors that students should use when making final admission decisions, college ranking lists are a resource that students and parents should use, so in this blog, I’m going to help you understand college rankings.

What are rankings?

College rankings have been around for many years. Offering a list of colleges, ordered by numerical scores, they have become an important part of the annual education cycle, with the US News, Times Higher Education and Shanghai rankings all being published in September each year. On the face of it the rankings seem to offer an easy way to compare one college against another, but this is not the case, each compiler will use vastly different criteria when determining the status of institutions. The more prestigious lists seek to base their results based on objective, statistical information but there are many lists that use more subjective assessments such as views of students. To really make the most of the information that ranking lists contain is important to understand what is actually being measured.

How college rankings are compiled

If you look at the three college rankings mentioned above, one thing is very apparent, there is little agreement across the rankings about which is the ’best’ college or university, while both US News and Shanghai rankings both have Harvard topping their lists, the Times Higher Education ranking names Oxford University as its’ top institution in the world. So how is it that different rankings can come up with different results? Well, it’s all down to what was mentioned earlier, different rankings use different criteria to calculate their lists.

Let’s compare what US News and Times Higher Education consider when they assess institutions. Both ranking methodologies use both quantitative and qualitative data to base their results on, but what they look at is quite different. The top two factors for US News are Graduation and Retention Rates, and the subjective assessment by peers and counsellors, each of which constitute 22.5% of the total ranking score. The Times Higher Education methodology is a little more complex, it has three top factors, Teaching, Citations and Research each of which counts 30% towards the overall ranking. The teaching element includes a reputation survey given to measure the “perceived prestige of institutions in teaching” as well as the student-teacher ratio at the school. Research includes a survey to judge “university’s reputation for research excellence among its peers,” and a measure of income the school makes related to its research. The citations element of the methodology seeks to assess the institution’s role in spreading new knowledge by capturing the number of times the universities published research is cited by scholars.

The difference between the two methodologies becomes starker when you look at the other factors being considered. US News includes factors such as student selectivity (12.5%) and alumni giving (5%), both of which are major factors for US colleges but have less relevance for other parts of the world where less store is placed on such measures. The use of reputational rankings can become a circular discussion: a strong reputation leads to a strong reputation. This benefits well known universities but fails to reflect the benefits of teaching and learning, research, community engagement, or any other academic activity.

 Given that each ranking will be looking at different things and placing a different emphasis on them it is not surprising that they come up with different results, so it is wise to understand which ranking best aligns with individual student priorities.

 Final Thoughts

College rankings can be a very useful tool for students, especially as they begin their explorations of colleges, alongside the numbered list they usually have helpful overviews of the different institutions. It can be unhelpful to put too much emphasis on rankings though, other factors such as size, location and what the programme includes should also be key factors when making decisions about which colleges to apply to.

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