A 2018 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education tried to answer this question, by looking at ranking methodology, the impact of selectivity on student success, and what “right fit” means in school choice.


Every published ranking uses multiple factors. Some factors are arguably less causative and/or less correlated than others. Some rankings rely on publicly available data, while others give weight to surveys and/or comments from students, parents, and admission staff.

Errors or misreporting can happen, which may affect results. A recent book indicates that true shifts in the top 25-30 schools would require significant funds over time, and thus are unlikely to occur. Easily gathered data may not be the most valuable. Arbitrary weighting of specific factors may also skew results.

Selectivity and Student Success

Student Success often focuses on earnings, which are important. But growth in skills and knowledge, character development, personal connections, and more, are not so easily measured. A 2014 Gallup-Purdue survey, which also looked at job satisfaction and well-being of 30,000 college graduates found no relationship in selectivity to success.

“Right Fit” School

The same Gallup-Purdue results found a strong connection between student engagement and post-degree satisfaction. Six college experiences were reported as key:

    • Taking a course with an exciting professor.
    • Working with professors who care about their students.
    • Finding a mentor
    • Working on a long-term project
    • Internship with applied learning
    • Active involvement in extracurricular activities

“Regardless of whether a student attends a college ranked in the top 5% or one ranked much lower, the research strongly suggests that engagement in college, how a student spends his or her time, matters much more in the long run than the college a student attends.” – Stanford GSE Study

Where you go does matter, in terms of cost, surroundings, distance from home, and other factors personal to you and your family.

Even more important, is how you spend your time and talents once you’re there. A college that supports and encourages your growth, achievement, and participation, and where you feel comfortable to live and engage your best self, is the best fit for you.

Selected College Rankings

  • US. News Best Colleges includes an overall ranking, and subsets such as Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, Top Public Schools, and by degree program area. My Fit Custom College Ranking allows you to enter your preferences and profile to create a personalized ranking. The College Compass online tool offers expanded school profiles for a fee. Rankings are based on data supplied by colleges themselves via survey.
  • SmartAsset lists the best community colleges. Rankings are based on faculty ratios, graduation and transfer rates, and tuition/fees.
  • The Princeton Review includes Best Value, Best Alumni Networks, Best Financial Aid, and more.
  • Niche provides rankings in various subsets, and by major, by state, and by admissions standard. Rankings are based on U.S. Dept. of Education data and additional sources
  • Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings include overall, by state, or by subject. Rankings are based on 15 performance indicators, as rated by 200,000 students in an annual survey.
  • Money’s Build Your Own Rankings tool allows you to create your own personalized list of high-value colleges, with filters by location,  school size, and other parameters.
  • Forbes ranks 650 public and private not-for-profit colleges overall and by region. Rankings are based on “outputs” such as likely success in chosen field, earnings, post-graduate leadership rather than “inputs” like test scores and acceptance rates.
  • Best Colleges incorporates statistical data from the National Center for Education Statistics plus school surveys. Rankings can be viewed in several different categories, or by state.
  • College Consensus aggregates rankings from publishers and student reviews. Rankings can be viewed by region, major, and many other subsets.

Remember to use college rankings wisely, paying attention to sources and methods, to start finding your choice of schools. Do your own comparisons based on specific criteria most important to you. Ultimately, YOU matter more than any college ranking. Happy searching!