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College Rank: What does it mean and why does it matter?

Written By: Scott Webster - Owner, and College Admissions Prep Director, Clayborne Education, LLC

So you’ve decided to sit down and crack open Pandora’s box: the college search. Selecting the schools to which you will apply could chart the course of your academic and vocational destiny; it is both exciting and overwhelming. It is exciting in that you can imagine a future in which you are participating in the life of a vibrant learning community and developing your skills and professional network in pursuit of your vocation. But it is also intimidating in that you seemingly have endless options to “choose your own adventure”, even if you are limiting your list to schools in your state. So, where do you begin? Enter college ranking lists. If you want a great education that offers access to extensive professional networks and robust resources, then you can start looking at rankings for schools in your state. School rankings such as those assigned by U.S. News & World Report occupy a mythic position in the minds of the college hopefuls. If you can just get into a top 25 school, all will be well, right? But what does a ranking actually mean? Demystifying college rank can help you make informed decisions about which schools should end up on your list and alleviate the anxiety and pressure of finding the “perfect” school for you.

Let’s consider the methodology that U.S. News & World Report uses to assign ranking for participating schools. Note that these criteria and their relative weight are subject to change year over year:

Academic Reputation (22.5%): First on our list is how academic experts, such as college presidents, provosts, and deans, rate schools based on their academic quality. At first blush, this seems a decent way to gauge school value, as surely insiders know their industry best…or do they? Perhaps we should be wary of the insiders’ game, which can quickly become susceptible to implicit and explicit bias.

Graduation and Retention Rates (22.5%): This factor seems a much better and objective measure. This data point assesses the percentage of students who graduate within six years and the ability of a university to retain students from their first to second year. In essence, do students stick around? If they do, it probably means something about the experience is worthwhile – the consumer has spoken!

Faculty Resources (20%): Another factor that would seem to be informative, this category examines variables such as class size, student-to-faculty ratio, faculty salaries, the proportion of faculty with the highest degrees in their fields, and faculty retention rates. If faculty are readily available, well-compensated, and have stayed with the institution for a while, surely that means the academic environment is desirable for prospective students.

Student Selectivity (12.5%): This is a tricky one. Factors in this category include the acceptance rate, the academic profile of admitted students (such as standardized test scores and high school class rank), and the proportion of accepted students who enroll. There are myriad ways selectivity has become a proxy for quality. A school that admits very few of its applicants year over year is not necessarily a better institution. It is simply harder to get into, and it often falsely generates a sense of pedigree and elitism. It is incumbent upon you to do your homework to determine the true value of a highly selective school – don’t take it at face value.

Financial Resources (10%): This factor considers the financial resources available to each institution, which can affect aspects such as student services, faculty support, and overall educational quality. It does seem advantageous to apply to a well-resourced school. You may have greater opportunities for financial aid or grant programs.

Alumni Giving (5%): This factor measures the percentage of alumni who donate to their alma mater, which is often seen as an indicator of alumni satisfaction and engagement. If an alumnus has discretionary resources to give back to their school, it typically means he or she has achieved some degree of professional success, which they attribute to their undergraduate experience and deem it appropriate to further the mission of the


Graduation Rate Performance (7.5%): This metric evaluates a college’s ability to exceed or meet predicted graduation rates based on the characteristics and academic qualifications of its students.

Social Mobility (5%): This factor assesses the extent to which colleges enroll and graduate students from underprivileged backgrounds, aiming to gauge the success of institutions in promoting social mobility.

So now that you know more about where a college ranking comes from, you can hopefully navigate the numbers trap. While the allure of attending a “top school” is hard to deny, it’s important to consider rankings alongside other factors in order to build a balanced college list. Some of these include: 

  • specific programs and majors
  • the overall academic reputation of the university
  • the quality of faculty
  • available resources
  • location
  • size
  • campus culture
  • financial aid

Ultimately, the college application landscape is multifaceted and ever-changing. College rankings should be considered as just one factor among many when making decisions about where your academic journey continues after secondary school. If you have any questions about the college search process, finding the right “fit,” or building your application portfolio, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at http://clayborne.com/contact/

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