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As an expert trained in data analysis, I understand the criticisms of academic rankings. Yes, it is impossible to sum up a university or program’s “worth” in a single number. Yes, the quality of the data provided is not ideal. Yes, colleges and programs are complex and the factors used in the rankings are not optimal.

As a former dean of students, I also understand why rankings continue to be used by prospective students. They are an easy way to compare schools and programs. The rankings are usually accompanied by some specific and useful information, including links to more specifics. And, who doesn’t want to go to the “best” university or program possible?

Here are some of my thoughts/advice on academic rankings:

  • As noted above, rankings are not a perfect indicator of college or program quality. So, please use them as ONE  of several sources of information to start your list of possible colleges/programs.
  • I think academic rankings can be useful in a broad sense. For example, schools with similar scores are likely to be of similar quality. What is a similar score?…Exactly.
  • When you look at college or program rankings, note the data source. For example, some collect data from the colleges and programs and some report student rankings. You can decide which matters more to you. And, again considering both or multiple scores will give you an even better indicator of rank.
  • Remember that all rankings have a bit of marketing mixed in. Institutions try to put their best foot forward and students who respond to rankings are likely to either LOVE or HATE their school or program.
  • Sometimes the most useful part of the rankings is not the overall national score. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) is ranked #30 in US News & World Report’s (US News) “National University Rankings.” The same publication’s most recent rankings for public health schools (2011) shows the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-CH as ranked #2 (two). As another example, US News also reports rankings for the top 10 regional universities and the most (internet/wi-fi) connected colleges and rankings by high school counselors. In sum, look at more than just the national rankings.

Here is a detailed article on “How College Rankings Work.

Starting Your Potential List of Colleges/Programs: Intro and Wikipedia
 (Part 1) – ways to start your potential list of colleges/programs:

  • Local experiences (Part 2): considering local colleges/programs that are familiar (e.g., because you drive by them every week)
  • Word of mouth (Part 3): knowing about options because you have family, friends or advisors who attended those colleges/programs or who work there
  • Rankings (Part 4): choosing potential options based on a credible evaluation that ranks the opportunities [FEATURED IN THIS POST]
  • Role models or prominent people (Part 5): adding options to your potential list based on the education of successful people, athletic teams, etc. you have read or heard about or seen
  • Browsing (Part 6): finding potential options by accident or as you search for information for other reasons


Share your examples. Which rankings do you prefer?