Understanding College Rankings

Expert Guide to Understanding US and UK College RankingsSeptember 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, while 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 essential part of the annual education cycle, with the US News, Times Higher Education, Forbes, and Shanghai rankings all being published in September each year. On the face of it, the rankings offer an easy way to compare one college against another, but this is different. Each compiler will use vastly different criteria when determining the status of institutions. The more prestigious lists seek to base their results on objective, statistical information, but many lists use more subjective assessments, such as students’ views. To make the most of the information that ranking lists contain is vital to understand what is 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 has Princeton topping their list of national colleges, Shanghai has Harvard topping while 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 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 counselors, each of which constitutes 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 to measure the “perceived prestige of institutions in teaching” and the student-teacher ratio at the school. The research consists of a study to judge the “university’s reputation for research excellence among its peers” and a measure of income the school makes related to its research. Finally, 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 cited by scholars.

The difference between the two methodologies becomes starker when you look at the other factors being considered. US News includes elements such as student selectivity (12.5%) and alumni giving (5%), which are significant factors for US colleges but have less relevance for other parts of the world where less store is placed on such measures. Using 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.

The Forbes rankings are different again. Unlike the other three, the Forbes rankings only cover universities and colleges in the US. It places the highest weight on alumni salary, with slightly less importance given to debt load, graduation rate, return on investment, and the leadership and entrepreneurial success of graduates. Having the focus on salary debt load and return on investment results in colleges that charge less but achieve good outcomes for students appearing higher up the ranking links. While MIT tops the Forbes list, in third place is the University of California Berkeley, while UCLA and UC San Diego also appear in the top 20. In the US News rankings, Berkeley only makes 20th place.

Given that each ranking will be looking at different things and placing a different emphasis on them, it is common 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 handy 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. However, other factors such as size, location, and what the program includes should also be key when deciding which colleges to apply to.

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