How Important are College Rankings in Students’ School Selection Process?

When high school juniors and seniors – and their parents – are choosing colleges and universities, they consider a variety of factors. They typically research schools that offer their chosen field of study, look into the costs, financial aid, location, school size, housing options and other factors. They also want to be sure the school offers a quality education, has solid values that align with their own and has a strong reputation. Students and their parents want some assurance that the college will provide good value, be worth the often-steep costs and will prepare the student well for his or her intended career.

During the college search process, students and parents may also look at national and regional college ratings to determine how schools stack up against one another – and why some are rated more highly than other institutions.  

But how important are college rankings to high school students as they research and choose their target schools?

Rankings do matter, but only to a point. Other factors may be much more important, depending on each student’s needs, career goals and personalities.

Students do check out ratings in their research, and many give them plenty of weight. The Art & Science Group surveyed more than 800 high school seniors, and about two thirds (66 percent) said they considered college rankings in their college application choice process. What’s more, the survey found that students with high SAT scores were even more likely (85 percent) to consider schools’ comparative rankings.

Experts advise students to consider rankings as just one piece of the college choice and decision process. What’s more important is that students get the college experience they want, that they feel challenged by the course of study and that they’re comfortable at the institution.

“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,” said Matthew Lopez, executive director of admission services and president of enrollment services at Arizona State University. “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.”

A University of Michigan First Year Student Body Profile surveyed incoming freshmen and outlined the reasons for selecting the school. Most students (86.7%) said they chose the university because of its reputation, 65.5 percent said the choice was reliant on the institution’s social reputation and only about a one-third (37.1%) of students said the school’s rankings figured into the decision.

Even more dramatic findings were reported in The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2019 report from Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Only about 15 percent of freshman survey respondents said that rankings in national magazines were “very important” in deciding to go to their chosen college. The leading reasons for the selection include the institution’s very good academic reputation (63%), that graduates get good jobs (55%), the academic reputation of the intended major (54%) and the cost of attending the college.

For related articles see: 6 Ways Higher Ed Can Leverage College Rankings