Learn how to use these four popular college ranking systems

College ranking systems can help you select the right college

Find the college that best fits you by understanding how to use college-ranking systems.

College ranking systems used properly can help you select the right college.

In the twenty-five years Hunter Programs Education Services has been helping students, we have often found ourselves to be surprised by just how little time many students and parents actually put into researching colleges during the selection process. Yet, colleges are so different from one another that this research is immensely important; especially when one considers that college is without a doubt one of the greatest investments that students make during their lifetimes in terms of both money and time.

College rankings can be a good place to start with your research, and can be used to help you investigate schools you have heard about through other sources. However, in order to benefit fully from the ranking system, you must understand the criteria used and how it is weighted, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the specific ranking system. In addition, it is important to understand the differences between ranking systems, and the effect that changes in ranking methodologies have on the rank of a specific college. This may sound like an overwhelming amount of information, and in truth, it can be. Therefore, in order to simplify things, we at Hunter Programs studied four established and trusted ranking systems and extracted the essence of each along with its strengths and weaknesses. Then we compared them side-by-side.

College Ranking System 1:  Forbes List of America’s Top Colleges

Strengths: focuses on quality of education and cost of education

Weaknesses: academic reputation not considered, student input may detract from ranking system goal

The college ranking system from Forbes is designed and implemented by a nonprofit organization, the Center for College Affordability & Productivity. A nonprofit is not likely to have self or outside interests influencing its ranking system design, and consequently its ranking outcome. Also, the focus of this ranking system is on what students get out of their education rather than what it takes to get into college.

The ranking criteria used in this system are student satisfaction (25%), post-graduate success (32.5%), graduation rates (7.5%), student debt (25%), and academic success (10%). Although potential career earnings and college cost considerations are not specific categories, they are embedded within this ranking system in the form of Payscale’s salary rankings and college four-year graduation rate.

Academic reputation is not considered in these rankings, and yet academic reputation can open doors to grad schools and employment opportunities.  We are not suggesting Forbes should start including academic reputation in its rankings since we believe there is great value in a ranking system that focuses on what students get out of college. However, we are suggesting that you also consider other ranking systems such as the one from U.S. News and THE World University Rankings so that you can view colleges from an academic reputation standpoint.

Analysis results can only be as good as the ranking design and the data itself. Although professor ratings from Rate My Professor can be useful in theory, unfortunately these professor ratings can be considerably higher for teachers who are considered easier, as opposed to more challenging or more effective.

Forbes Ranking Methodology

College Ranking System 2:  Payscale College Salary Report

Strengths: statistical analysis of large salary databases, no lurking influence from other dependent criteria

Weaknesses: skewed rankings with STEM schools earning higher rankings, small schools not included

Payscale creates its rankings strictly from college graduate salaries. Over the past ten years, we at Hunter Programs Education Services have noticed that the financial considerations of a college education have risen to the top of all college selection concerns. Adding to this is the ongoing popularity of discussions and debates about whether or not college makes financial sense for everyone anymore. In regards to these concerns, the Payscale rankings can be quite helpful.

There are two college ranking lists produced by Payscale. One ranking for those who only earn bachelor’s degrees, and a second ranking for those who go on to earn graduate degrees. Although Payscale rankings list early career salary, mid-career salary, percent STEM degrees, and the percentage of “yes” responses to the question, “Does your job make the world a better place,” Payscale determines college rankings based solely upon mid-career median salary.

The 2014-2015 rankings include a new column that specifies percentage of graduates who are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This greatly improves the usefulness of these rankings since STEM graduates tend to earn considerably more than liberal arts grads. Therefore colleges with large populations of STEM graduates tend to rank higher in the Payscale rankings.

Of course it is not practical or even possible for Payscale to obtain salary information for every graduate from each college, but salary data from an included college is statistically significant since the sample sizes range from one hundred to several thousand. Very small schools are excluded because of the small sample sizes for salaries. Payscale provides all the pertinent statistical analysis and confidence level information in its methodology section. It is also important to note that the rankings leave out all self-employed, project-based, and contract employees.

Payscale Ranking Methodology

College Ranking System 3:  THE World University Rankings

Strengths: thorough academic review, includes international outlook

Weaknesses: no graduate job outlook, no graduate income projections

As the name of THE (Times Higher Education) World University Rankings implies, this system ranks colleges from all around the world, and it is the only major ranking system that does so. THE World University Rankings evaluates colleges by examining five areas: teaching (30%), research (30%), citations (30%), industry income (2.5%), and international outlook (7.5%).

Five years ago the creators of THE World University Ranking acknowledged it was inherently difficult to find meaningful ways to compare universities from country to country. Although THE World University Ranking system currently lists five areas it examines, four of these areas are considered to be a single area labeled “academics” within other ranking systems. From this perspective THE World University Rankings really has not advanced in its quest for different ways to compare universities in different countries other than by two major areas, academics and international outlook.

But if you value academics above all else and you feel the other ranking systems are missing the value of international outlook, then this is the right ranking system for you. The international outlook is unique to THE World University Rankings and is great for those who really are looking for international outlook in both education and career. It is only weighted 7.5% in calculating overall ranking scores, but this is significantly more than 0.0% that other rankings devote to this area.

Noticeably absent from this ranking system are direct measures of job outlook and income. As was mentioned in the above review of the ranking system by Payscale, income and job outlook are paramount when it comes to what students and parents in the United States are looking for in a college.

Finally, THE World University Rankings address two extremely important issues with this kind of data. First, they provide tabs at the top of their most recent rankings to give convenient access to rankings from the last five years. This allows the user to easily see if there have been major changes in the rankings from year to year as ranking criteria and weighting of those criteria have changed. Second, the designers of THE World University Rankings recognize that the raw score distribution is skewed at the high end of the scores, and they remedy this by normalizing the data. Without normalizing the raw scores, the scores of lower ranked colleges are almost identical. By normalizing the data, those differences are more meaningful. The creators of the U.S. News rankings could learn from these two ideas.

Times Higher Education Ranking Methodology

College Ranking System 4:  U.S. News Best College Rankings

Strengths: the categories considered in these rankings seem to be important to most people

Weaknesses: this ranking system may actually influence the rankings, ranking scores are skewed

The U.S. News ranking system has been around for many years, and it is popular both inside and outside the United States. They produce two main ranking lists, one of national universities and another of liberal arts colleges. This ranking system examines seven areas: undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%), graduation and retention rates (22.5%), faculty resources (20%), student retention (12.5%), financial resources (10%), alumni giving (5%), and graduation rate performance (7.5%).

This ranking system is by far the most revered and popular of all the ranking systems, and consequently it is the most influential. Through no fault of the ranking system itself, the incredible popularity of this ranking system enables this system to exert great influence on what colleges strive to offer, and therein lies the problem with this ranking system. Within a vacuum, this ranking system is just as valid as any of the other ranking systems. The U.S. News ranking categories are selected just as purposefully as categories selected by other ranking systems. The weight given to a category within the U.S. News ranking system has the same level of subjectivity as the weight given to a category in any other ranking system.

Evidence of the influence exerted by U.S. News on college offerings can be found by examining changes in ranking categories and weights of those categories over the years, and then observing the corresponding trends in shifting ranking positions which follow. Every few years, U.S. News will remove a category, add a category, or change the weighting of a category. This causes an instant shifting in ranking positions. Over the course of the next several years following the methodology changes, college ranking positions steadily creep towards same spots they held before the system change put into place by U.S. News. This would seem to suggest that instead of passively ranking colleges, it is possible that U.S. News inadvertently influences the rankings.

Aside from the above mentioned popularity problem, there are two other problems within the U.S. News rankings. First, in regards to the category labeled undergraduate academic reputation, which is weighted at a whopping 22.5%, it would be incredibly naive to believe that the research done by graduate students has no consequential influence on undergraduate reputation. The second problem is that the difference between consecutive scores decreases to rather insignificant levels as you get further down the ranking list. To fix this problem, U.S. News could normalize their raw ranking scores in the same way THE World University Rankings does.

U.S. News Ranking Methodology

Summary and Side-by-Side Comparison

We suggest that for most people, the greatest benefit comes from using all four of these ranking systems. Consult the table below for a summary and side-by-side comparisons of these ranking systems.




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