“It’s not where you go to college, but how you go to college.” —John Baylor

Do College Rankings Matter? OTC believes that rankings are flawed and use uncorroborated data. Thus, rankings should be given minimal weight and consulted sparingly. But, a 2018 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education tried to answer this question. The study looked 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 rankings rely on publicly available data, while others give weight to surveys and/or comments from students, parents, and admission staff. Most rankings rely on self-submitted data from the colleges themselves; few ranking services corroborate this data. Columbia is not the only college that has exaggerated its data.

Errors or misreporting can happen. A recent book indicates that honest shifts in the top 25-30 schools would require significant financial investment by individual schools over time—upward shifts similar to what NYU and Northeastern have orchestrated over the last thirty years. Thus, these shifts are unlikely to occur, certainly in the short term.

Selectivity and Student Success

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

“Right Fit” School

The same Gallup-Purdue results found a strong connection between student engagement and post-degree satisfaction. Per the study, six college experiences are key factors:

    • Taking a course with an exciting professor.
    • Working with professors who care about their students.
    • Finding a mentor
    • Working on a long-term project
    • Experiencing an internship with applied learning
    • Engaging actively 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.

“It’s not where you go to college, but how you go to college.” —John Baylor

Selected College Rankings

  • US. News Best Colleges includes an overall ranking and subsets such as Top Liberal Arts Colleges, Top Regional Universities, Top Public Schools, and Top Universities in certain majors. 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 uncorroborated 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 lists of schools based on Best Value, Best Alumni Networks, Best Financial Aid, and more.
  • Niche provides rankings in various subsets, by major, by state, and by admissions standards such as GPA and test score. Rankings are based on U.S. Dept. of Education data and additional sources
  • Times Higher Education College Rankings include lists by state and 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 a personalized list of high-value colleges, with filters by location,  school size, and other parameters.
  • Forbes ranks 500 public and private not-for-profit colleges overall and by region. Rankings are based on “outputs” such as likely success in the chosen field, earnings, and 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 prudently, paying attention to sources and methods. Do your own comparisons based on the specific criteria most important to you. Ultimately, YOU matter more than any college ranking. It’s not where, but how you go to college. Happy searching!