What Should College Rankings Really be Telling Us?

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:   Green & Write, November 3, 2016

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

An Op-Ed in The New York Times last week responded to the recent release of the 2017 U.S News & World Report college rankings by asking, “How do we make sense of all of these college rankings?” The article goes on to discuss how there has been a proliferation of these types of rankings, all with different methodologies based on variables each organization believes are important factors involved in college choice. The author briefly discusses some of these differences, citing The Economist, Forbes, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, among others. The list is dizzying. Knowing where to look, or even whether to look at all can be perplexing. To assist our readers, I spent some time recently studying some of the most popular college ranking guides out there, asking how they make their calculations and which organization, if any, stands out as better than the rest

Organizing the Options

How are college rankings actually calculated? The answer depends on which organization you ask. To simplify the unwieldy number of college rankings, I have created a table with several of the most prominent publishers and the variables that they use to calculate their school ratings.

Organization Categories Considered to Determine Ranking
US News Undergraduate academic reputation; Graduation and Retention Rates; Faculty Resources; Student Selectivity; Financial Resources; Alumni Giving;Graduation rate performance
Forbes Post-graduate success; Student debt; Student satisfaction; Graduation rate; Academic success
Money Quality of education; Affordability; Outcomes
The Economist Multiple variables from US Department of Education “College Scorecard” database: attempt to determine how much of a graduates earnings (10 years post graduation) are merit based and what part is contributed based on contributions a particular college made.


The WSJ Resources; Engagement; Outcomes; Environment

As you can see, each organization has its own way of defining what makes a college “The Best.”  Of the organizations listed below, The Economist, Money, and Forbes make a point to take into consideration the amount of debt a student is left with after graduation. With student debt being a common burden, it makes a lot of sense to have it included in a calculation of college rankings. Interestingly, of this list only The Wall Street Journal took into account measures of diversity (student diversity, student inclusion, staff diversity, proportion of international students). This variable might be particularly important in a time when diversity and inclusion is a common focus for colleges (see my previous post for more detail). 

One to Consider

While perusing the organizations offering college rankings, I came across one particularly interesting organization, NICHE. Out of all of the options I had come across, this was by far the easiest to use, the most visually appealing, and the most expansive in terms of ways to rank schools. NICHE allows you to look at college rankings through several different lenses: Best Colleges [Overall?], Best by Major, Best by State, Admissions, Campus Life, Students, and Academics. Under each of these are several more specific categories where colleges are ranked by a unique set of variables specific to the category. Although some of the other publishers of these lists do similar variations, NICHE provides a more extensive set of searchable options. NICHE also provides a description of their methodology and touts that they have the most comprehensive data in the industry. (This is an industry!?)

As with any of these lists, there is always room for debate as to the reliability of the data. Despite it’s obvious benefits, I have a concern about NICHE’s reliance on student and alumni surveys. Who fills these surveys out? Does everyone fill them out? What types of questions are asked, and how are they related to the ranking categories? This is information that should be provided so that readers can obtain a more valid picture of college/university quality.

However, even with some reservations, I feel that NICHE gets the closest to creating rankings that are the most customizable to what an individual might be looking for when they choose to turn to college rankings. Not everyone is looking for the same thing in a college. Everyone will have a unique list of pros and cons.


With this “new industry” expanding every year, it is important to know what you are looking at. Not all rankings are created the same. Just like within other areas of your life, it is important to be an informed consumer when it comes to reading college rankings.

Choosing a college is no small task. Rankings can make this job easier, but only if they are used as one part of a broader decision-making process. Rankings can help you make a list of schools that will be the best fit for you. But don’t rely on one ranking alone. Explore others and find several that look specifically at components you feel are important for your college choice. Once you have a list, go visit the school if you can, have a conversation with an alum (there may be an alumni organization near you), and take advantage of recruitment fairs. We need to move away from college rankings as a way of making some schools feel superior and instead think of them as making us all feel confident and excited about the college we choose to attend.

Contact Jessica: landgr16@msu.edu

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