EC Blog #8: School Rankings: Do They Matter?

No matter where you go, one is often judged by the prestige of the university that they went to. Teenagers these days feel a lot of pressure to get into the highest ranking schools they possibly can, which causes a lot of stress, unhappiness and tension. This begs a certain question: How are college rankings determined, and are they actually important when you consider which school to go to?

Websites such as U.S. News and The Princeton Review claim that they are reliable resources when it comes to finding out a college’s true worth. U.S. News groups schools into 10 different ranking categories based on their type of institution, and then they use 15 diverse measures of academic quality, such as average ACT/SAT scores of admitted students, student-faculty ratios, and graduation rates, and also analyzes research, user feedback, discussions with schools and higher education experts, and other data. On the other hand, The Princeton Review has 62 annual college ranking lists (such as “best classroom experience,” “students study the most,” and “most accessible professors,” for example), which are based entirely on what students attending the schools tell them about their colleges and their experiences there via a survey. The survey has 80 questions that are divided into four different sections: school academics/administration, student life, fellow students, and the students themselves. After collecting this data, The Princeton Review gives each college a score based on its students’ answers to each question. Using these scores, The Princeton Review is able to produce its lists. However, it’s important to note that The Princeton Review does not have an overall ranking system like U.S. News does; instead, it determines the top 385 colleges in the nation and puts them all in alphabetical order in a book for that year. 


As one can see, these two sites use different methods to gather and catalogue their data. This results in very disparate lists that emphasize different parts of the college experience, which in turn must be taken with a grain of salt. A commonly called-out problem with a lot of these college ranking lists is that publications and organizations will arbitrarily judge how to weigh unique yet ultimately imperfect variables. For example, what does success truly look like for a college? Is it happiness, graduation and retention rates, academic excellence, or something else? How do we take individuals’ personal values of what they look for in education and turn them into proxies for the measurement of the overall values of a community and institution? There are no concrete answers to this, regardless of what some organizations and schools may tell you, as different people will tell you a variety of answers.


Still, many companies and individuals still hold onto a school’s ranking as an indicator of success. For example, top US law firms will be more likely to hire from the top 14 law schools in the nation than they will from any law school below that ranking. However, there is an increasing trend in the notion that where you went to school doesn’t matter as much as how you did and what you did during your time during university. This is due to the fact that employers are looking more and more at experience and academic excellence to judge the qualities of potential hires. 


In the end, the ranking of a school can be decided on intangible qualities, each of which resonate differently with individuals. When deciding on a school or when at least forming an opinion about a school, it’s important to do one’s research so that he or she may match his or her own values to that of a school’s in order to make the best judgement for him or herself. At the same time, it’s imperative that one recognizes that other people will have contrasting values and thus distinct feelings about the same schools. By doing so, the pressure to get into the “best school possible,” which may seem to be an insurmountable task, to hopefully melt into a less straining desire to get into a school that’s the best fit for you.