Do college rankings really matter?


Colleges and universities take great pride in the national and international rankings they receive. You’ll see these proudly displayed on billboards and digital ads and hear about them from recruiters at college fairs and campus visits. Rankings provide colleges and universities proof points that the education received at their school is high quality.

Families often ask some version of the question: “What does this ranking mean for my student’s experience at your school?” Fair question. We got answers about college rankings from a director of university admission.

Why do colleges use rankings to promote themselves to students?

There are thousands of institutions in the U.S., and we’re all looking for ways to differentiate ourselves. We want to highlight our strengths and provide quick insight into what we believe sets us apart. Rankings are a great way for colleges to do that.

Are there any rankings that are definitely worth paying attention to?

Because college choice is such a personal decision, some rankings may be more important to a family than others. For example, peer-to-peer rankings are voted on by many university leaders and are most likely to be impartial and informed. What’s most important is reliable information. Be sure to confirm the rankings you’re looking at are based on solid research methods.

Why do college rankings differ so much? For example, a college could be #10 on one list and #70 on a similar list.

No college or university can be everything to everyone. Due to faculty members, alumni or research expenditures, a school may be a national leader in political science, for example, while being a “middle of the pack” school for engineering, and vice versa. If you take stock in rankings, consider being more concerned about the rankings that most directly relate to your student’s chosen field of study. One word of caution is that a top ranked program may not translate into an excellent experience for your student. Campus visits and conversations with students, alumni and faculty are often better gauges of how your student will fit at the school they are considering.

How reliant should a student be on college rankings in making their college decision?

I encourage students to use all the sources they can, including rankings, when making their college decision. However, rankings shouldn’t be the only source. Use rankings as just one piece of the decision-making process. In many cases, a particular ranking may not mean anything to your student. They should do their own research and look for the experience they want. Your student should feel welcomed and challenged academically by an academic community. 

Finally, remember that the quality of your student’s education is also reliant on the effort that they make. Passively sitting through a lecture at a school with a top-five ranking is far less impactful than actively participating (going to office hours, collaborating with classmates, participating in research, etc.) at a school ranked in the top 50.

If a student is paying attention to rankings, should they place more emphasis on rankings for the overall university or for the specific program they’re interested in?

I advise students to look comprehensively. Look at universities that are able to provide more than just their major. Their academic and career interests are important, but the student experience beyond the classroom is an important component as well. For example, there are rankings in aspects like career services and first-year experience. Rankings like this shed a bit of light on other aspects the school values as a part of the college experience.  


Contributor Matthew Lopez, Executive Director of Admission Services and Vice President of Enrollment Services at Arizona State University