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College rankings: They may not be the best measure for selecting a college or university

It’s that time of year when high school seniors are formulating their final college lists and juniors are just beginning the process of discovering schools and opportunities.  It’s an exciting time!  However, it is important for students, and yes, us parents, to keep in mind that there are many colleges and universities of all sizes, public and private, that provide an excellent undergraduate education and preparation for higher education or a career.   The process should be about finding the best match for your student.  It should not solely be about getting in the most prestigious schools.  Given the tremendous competition in these schools, the odds for even the very best candidates are slim, so we can do our students a disservice by putting emphasis on nationally high ranked schools over some lesser known name brands.

Besides, what does a prestigious school on your student’s resume mean if they end up dropping out, transferring to another college (at great expense) or being just plain miserable for four or more years?   Of course that’s not the end result for everyone, and I would certainly not discourage anyone with the high school stats and wear-with-all to apply to one of these great schools, but it is important for parents to do a “paradigm check” when it comes to advising their students as they approach this process.   The stress on these kids can be overwhelming even without parental pressure to get into one of these schools.

I encourage all parents to learn more about the popular college rankings such as US News and World Report’s Best Colleges or Forbe’s America’s Top Colleges list and the metrics they use to create the rankings, if you intend to refer to them at all.   If you compare both lists, the very top is similar, but they are very different lists as the rankings continue.   Why?   These two magazines use very different criteria, and criteria weight to create the lists.   The articles linked below provide some details into the ranking formulas.   What you will find is that US News and World Report focuses heavily on the attributes of the students coming into the school and the amount of school resources, and money alumni contribute to the school. It looks at a 6 year graduation rate.

Forbes takes a different approach.  It looks more at outcomes of a student being educated at a school such as student satisfaction, post graduate success including the number of notable alumni and Rhodes Scholars, and student debt.   Forbes uses a 4 year graduation rate as a measure.   The end result is a lot more small, liberal arts colleges and universities, many not widely known, that make the list for best colleges.   For instance, Pomona College, a small liberal arts college with a student body of just over 1,600 students in Claremont, CA, is #10 on Forbes list just behind #8 Duke and #9 Brown, an Ivy school.

How US News Created the 2017 Rankings

Forbes Ranking America’s Top Colleges 2015

The best results happen when students have the time to explore a wide range of colleges and what unique and challenging programs they have to offer, determine what they want from the college experience, and research those hidden gems, as well as the “big names” that match the student’s

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