Many students shop for colleges using resources such as the US News and World Report college rankings. Increasingly, colleges have either worked hard to place high in these rankings, or colleges have dropped out of the system by refusing to submit the data.
College rankings have always been controversial because it is not clear what they measure. The University of California, Berkeley ranks near the top of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings because of research productivity, but much lower on the US News and World Report rankings because Berkeley has large classes and graduates do not donate much, though Berkeley does not push for donations until students have been away for decades.
Some schools that provide excellent education do not appear on any of the top lists. I am familiar with one regional American university where 100% of the pre-meds have been accepted to medical school in recent years, which is twice the national average. Yet that school is not ranked with the top New England private colleges.
What Rankings Can Tell You
Rankings do tell you which colleges have name brand recognition, which can translate into an easier time getting into graduate school or landing jobs with name brand companies. So in financial terms, which are the ultimate focus of this series, the issue is whether the extra $20,000 per year in tuition for a top ranked school is going to translate into some kind of payback. That provides a real challenge for college counselors as they work with seniors and their parents.
What are the Major Rankings?
Three of the best known rankings are the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking and those published by The London Times and US News and World Report. Shanghai measures research productivity in such terms as numbers of articles, books, academic awards, Nobel Prizes, patents, citations in research indices and other indicators of high quality research and discovery.
High quality research doesn't always translate into good classroom instruction, of course, though big classes can indeed be taught effectively. There's a famous art history class at Yale that is taught to hundreds of students at a time, for example.
The London Times and US News try to measure educational quality by drawing on many kinds of data, such as reputation, class sizes, donations from graduates, and other factors. None of these factors necessarily tells you anything about instruction itself. Still other published rankings--and there are many--measure factors such as student life, partying, and location.
How to Use Ranking Data
Within every region of every nation, there are colleges that are highly respected, some of which may not be well known across the nation or the world. Moreover, national reputation rankings tend to lag well behind changes in the actual landscape of education. All accredited American universities meet the same basic standards.
Accreditation does not rank schools. Rather, accreditation assures that all approved schools have adequate libraries, labs, well qualified faculty, and other services. Ultimately what brand name rankings tell you can be reduced to two factors. A brand name does open doors--if a student can afford it. More important, perhaps, is what a brand name says about the other students who will attend a school with a high reputation. They will be highly motivated, ambitious, and hard working people who will tend to push their peers to work hard. Students often learn more from each other than they do from the faculty.