Princeton University once again tops the list of best colleges in the U.S. (Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications)
Princeton University is routinely on lists of the best colleges in the U.S., but experts say students should look beyond the rankings for a school that fits them.

Selecting a college or university from the thousands in the U.S. can be mind-boggling.

Many applicants turn to a web search to find rankings of the “best” colleges and will find U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Princeton Review, and Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education ranking sites, to name a few. Are those rankings and lists accurate, though, and, more importantly, are those “top” schools the best for you?

U.S. News & World Report published its first “America’s Best Colleges” report in 1983, and many schools use those rankings to promote themselves. However, some educators have questioned the published rankings and how useful they are.

Experts rank college rankings

Ray Anderson is a former high school principal who works with AGM-College Advisors in Virginia. Anderson says that while he uses the rankings and talks with students about the results, what’s more important is knowing what the student wants, likes and is capable of doing.

“The focus is on who you are, and then what schools match you,” Anderson said, “not matching you to the school.”

Jeffrey Stahl, a Virginia high school counselor, agrees that rankings have limited value.

He said the rankings “can be helpful,” but that some students pay too much attention to the name of a school and its position in rankings.

“So much about the campus environment, students, professors, cannot be shown just by ranking,” Stahl said. He suggests that families use the ranking information as a starting point. Then, they should widen their search, make their own list, and go see the colleges for themselves.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, is more critical of the way college rankings are used, saying rankings “are not mathematically proven to measure the quality of any single college, much less to provide comparisons between colleges.”

He said lower-ranked schools may have difficulty getting students interested in their programs.

“As such,” he said, “the rankings have been known to create ethical problems, as institutions misreport data or otherwise seek to manipulate their ranking.”

In July, U.S. News & World Report “de-ranked” five institutions from its list for misreporting information. Consequently, the magazine said, their ranking numbers were “higher than they otherwise would have been.”

Students must look past those ratings to a gain a broader opinion about the schools for themselves.

Hawkins noted that international applicants might think rankings come from the U.S. government, but that’s not true, he said.

“We try to emphasize that these are commercial publications, rather than official rankings of any sort,” he said.

Richard DeMillo, the executive director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for 21st Century Universities, which describes itself as a “living laboratory for fundamental change in higher education,” says, while the higher rank is “nice, it does not matter.”

DeMillo, whose school moved up 13 positions in Forbes’ latest list, said he believes that Forbes, U.S. News & World Report and other publications are providing a service, “if you ignore the ranking part of it.”

For example, he finds the information about all the study programs to be useful. The ratings sometimes list lesser-known schools that might be strong in a field of study that a student is interested in.

“There are so many hidden gems out there,” Stahl said. “Just because a college doesn’t make the list doesn’t mean it doesn’t have great programs and resources.”

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