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college_opens_doorsWhether you love them or hate them, agree or argue, college rankings are a part of life. They’re respected in the media; they’re taken seriously by students, institutions, and employers; and they’re an ever-reliable source of drama and anxiety.

There’s no such thing as a perfect ranking; every ranking system has seen its data collection methods criticized, most often by the ones with the most to lose from a bad ranking – the colleges. But, even knowing that no ranking can take into account every possible factor in the quality of a college or university, we still look every year to see who comes out on top (and bottom).

Every ranking has one thing in common: it is a list of schools that has been written up based on some methodology. It’s important to remember that rankings are contextual – a ranking can only judge what it’s designed to judge, so if a factor that’s important to you isn’t there (say, how well the school colors match), it’s not going to be part of the ranking. So, as you do your research, keep in mind – all rankings are incomplete, imperfect, and provisional. Take them all with a few grains of salt.

U.S. News and World Report college and university rankings might be the grandaddy of them all. They published their first edition in 1983. When you hear terms like “first-tier” or “second-tier”, they are referring to this grand listing. U.S. News divides schools in 4 tiers based on their numerical rankings. A range of variables factor into their equations; currently this is their criteria:

  • undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%)
  • graduation and freshman retention rates (20%)
  • faculty resources (20%)
  • student selectivity (15%)
  • financial resources (10%)
  • graduation rate performance (7.5%)
  • alumni giving (5%)

Forbes partners with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) to devise its rankings. In their 2014 Top Colleges they list 650 schools. What distinguishes these rankings from others is their main interest in ROI: basically, what a student gets out of college.

CCAP, in collaboration with Forbes, compiles its college rankings using five general categories:

  • student satisfaction (25%)
  • post-graduate success (32.5%)
  • student debt (25%)
  • four-year graduation rates (7.5%)
  • academic success (10%)

The Princeton Review publishes  an annual college rankings list based entirely on what students attending the schools tell them about their experience. They conduct professional 80 question surveys in 4 sections of 130,000 students. They ask the students about:

  • their school’s academics/administration
  • life at their college
  • their fellow students
  • themselves

The answer choices are a range: they may be “Excellent” to “Awful” or “Extremely” to “Not at all,” or percentage ranges such as “0-20%” or “81-100%”. Every college gets a score based on the student survey. Similar to a GPA, it’s a metric that gives Princeton Review a base to compare opinions from school to school. The Ranking list is numerical up to 20; after that they are just listed. Princeton Review also has a list of college “ratings” for which they have a different set of criteria, and all data collected is arranged in a point system with a range of 60-99 (suppose to mimic D-A letter grading). The following categories are rated:

  • Admissions Selectivity
  • Financial Aid
  • Quality of life
  • Fire Safety (which translates to school safety)
  • Green (how environmentally aware a particular school is)

Other lesser known rankings:

Kiplinger’s Best College Values: the business publisher compares 200 top value public or private colleges and universities. They have a great search option that allows you to filter by state(s) and/or particular schools you may know you’re already interested in.

The Daily Beast’s Guide to the Best Colleges: this news and opinion website ranks the top 200 (out of 2000) schools taking into account future earnings, affordability, and graduation rate mostly. Other criteria may include academics, diversity, athletics, nightlife, activities and campus quality.

Money Magazine (owned by Time magazine): devises their own college rankings yearly. Using measures educational quality, affordability, and career earnings. New earning data collected from Payscale.com for their current 2014 list shows they have a heavily weighted emphasis on value schools.