U.S. News college rankings: not the only way to judge schools

The U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of colleges is out. But there are other rankings available, giving prospective students and their families information that may be more useful.

Elise Amendola/AP
A tour group at the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Once again, Harvard tops U.S. News & World Report's ranking of colleges and universities.

It’s a ritual for students in the throes of the college search: poring over the rankings offered by U.S. News & World Report.

But a growing set of alternative rankings have been cropping up to give students (and parents) other angles to consider as they try to find the best fit.

Want to know how often students have chosen one school over another if accepted to both? How well a school does in serving an economically diverse student body? Or how well alumni are faring in the ‘real world’? Some of these other options may be for you.

Whichever rankings you choose to peruse, the best approach is to compare as much information as you can based on the factors most important to you, many college-guidance experts say.

College rankings “do have an impact on where students choose to go to college.… [But] just going to the best-ranked school that you got into might not be the best choice for you individually,” says Amanda Griffith, an assistant professor of economics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem N.C., who has researched the college-selection process.

1. Student Choice

The Student Choice College Rankings are based on more than 200,000 college acceptances, so students can see where students with similar characteristics to them have been admitted and have chosen to attend.

Rankings are “often based on all sorts of input-type factors, like how selective [a school is] or how much [it] pays faculty… [and] those inputs can be gamed or selectively reported,” says Matt Pittinsky, CEO of Parchment Inc., a high school transcript service that created the ranking system last year. “What we’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s think about student choice: When a student gets into two schools, which one do they pick?’ ”

Schools are assigned points when they are chosen, with less-selective schools getting more points for beating out institutions that are very difficult to get into.

Harvard, Stanford, and Yale took the top three slots this year. The Top 10 also includes MIT, Princeton, University of Chicago, Brown, Caltech, Amherst, and the US Air Force Academy.

Student Choice creators wanted a ranking that didn’t separate schools into categories such as liberal arts colleges or research universities, since many students consider all types of schools.

Among the comparison tools available on Parchment.com is a “College Matchup” system where students can plug in two school names to see the percentage of students who preferred one over the other.

2. Washington Monthly

Washington Monthly’s annual college guide offers yet another approach to rankings – one based on how well higher education institutions are serving the nation – through social mobility, research production, and fostering public service.

Thirteen of the top 20 universities in Washington Monthly’s ranking are public, while all of the top 20 in the U.S. News ranking are private.

The website shows not only where schools rank, but how they did on each of the various factors measured.

The social-mobility scale highlights schools that produce graduation rates higher than would be expected based on the demographic background of their students. This year, the net price students pay (after grants are taken into account) was factored in as well, to reward schools that give the biggest bang for the buck.

Elizabeth City State University, a historically black institution in North Carolina, for instance, has an expected graduation rate of just 19 percent, yet 42 percent of its students graduate. “There’s a story going on there, and they do it at an average net price of about $1,400 for the academic year,” says Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, which collaborated on the rankings.

Washington Monthly’s top three liberal arts colleges are Bryn Mawr College, Swarthmore College, and Berea College (71st in U.S. News). The top three national universities are the University of California-San Diego, Texas A&M (58th in U.S. News), and Stanford.

3. Alumni Factor

The Alumni Factor rankings, based on surveys of alumni from more than 450 colleges and universities, score 177 top schools on 15 attributes, including overall happiness, value for the money, intellectual development, average net worth of graduates, and whether they would recommend the school to a friend.

The website offers a free seven-day trial to explore its offerings, and then charges $3.95 to $5.95 for various membership levels.

4. US Department of Education

While the US Department of Education is not exactly in the college rankings game, it, too, is trying to improve the level of information easily accessible to students comparing their options.

In June, for instance, it published its annual college costs lists which detail schools with the highest and lowest published sticker price, the highest and lowest net price, and where prices are rising the fastest.


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