• University rankings rely on criteria that may not align with your priorities. Use all the tools you have to explore appropriate schools, including the resources in our Knowledge Vault.
  • College rankings shouldn’t be your primary reason for selecting a school. You should build your rankings based on your priorities. This New York Times tool lets you do just that.
  • Finding a college where you will thrive and complete your degree is the most important thing you can do. Earning a degree increases your potential lifetime earnings dramatically. 

Choosing a college is one of the most significant decisions you will make. You want to choose the best school to set you up for a good life–professionally, socially, financially, and personally. But is a high-ranking college the right choice? Does it even matter for your future? How to decide.

To make it more difficult, you often choose your college during a very stressful transition, from living at home to flying out of the nest, at least partly, when you go to college. For adult students, you are at a turning point in life that will determine your future direction. 

But for most students, college rankings contain only some helpful information. And these lists have grown to have outsized importance in our media-frenzied world. Yet even the colleges themselves are having second thoughts about the effects of rankings on their programs.

To answer the question, “Should I choose a college based on rankings?” succinctly: no. College ranking lists can provide some handy information for students researching schools, but basing your college enrollment decision on rankings is a bad idea for many reasons. Finding a school that fits your goals and personal preferences and supports your success through graduation and beyond is more important than your college ranking. 

For most college students, rankings are not very important. Many schools offer an excellent education, and the differences in what you learn between two similar programs may be insignificant. But your experience at the school, having the major you want, the support you need, and a social environment where you thrive are all much more important for most students. 

The universities that always come up on top in rankings include the Ivy League and other highly competitive schools, and they are good schools. But they are not the right fit for every student, nor can most students get a spot in these selective institutions. And many fewer particular institutions offer similar programs, more support, and can be accessible to a more significant number of students. 

The university you want to attend may be #43 on one list, #210 on another, and #29 on a third list. Which list do you believe? Each list is based on different measures, so the “opinion” of each list is different. You have your sense of what criteria are most important to you, and any information you can gather by looking at lists can help you mull over your choices. What one list or another thinks is a “better” school is subjective, so don’t take any list too seriously. Your opinion about what is most important in a university is the one that counts for you.

For starters, colleges can game the system. Whether it is falsifying numbers like Columbia University was recently accused of doing or winning and dining other academics to boost the reputation rankings, colleges try to rise in the rankings in various ways. This brings the rankings’ credibility into question.

If there is cheating, or if the criteria for ranking don’t align with the priorities of most students, then rankings are problematic. In addition, there is no objective way to measure colleges to each other–each has strengths, weaknesses, and unique characteristics.

Schools that rank high frequently see an increase in the number of students applying, and because they only have so many slots for new students, they look more selective. Which makes them seem even more “exclusive.” The rankings reinforce the idea of hierarchies, and turning away more students doesn’t improve the university–it just disappoints more applicants who don’t get in. 

Every type of ranking list works on a different set of criteria, and these criteria may need to align better with your priorities. For example, the school’s reputation, as rated by other academics, often makes up a large percentage of scoring methods. And yes, a school that other professors respect may be important to you if you want to become a professor yourself, but less important if you’re going to become a physical therapist or an accountant.

University rankings also look at the school as a whole, when the department and program of your major are of higher importance to the quality of what you learn. A robust curriculum, an active department, good facilities, and supportive faculty in your major will have more influence than the school.

As long as the college or university you choose is accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of education, you can be assured that the institution offers solid programs. You can go beyond looking at the accreditation to compare the courses in programs you are considering, looking to make sure that what you are most interested in learning will be part of your study.

Once you are busy making friends, studying exciting subjects, and getting involved in student life, your college’s ranking will be of little importance to you. The number assigned by different college lists to your choice doesn’t determine your happiness on campus and later success in life. Instead, finishing college and flourishing in your learning are the main determinants of later success.

Various studies have correlated graduate earnings with the college’s selectivity, but many variables influence future income. If you can get into an elite college and it has the program you want, you might earn slightly more when you graduate. But just by getting a bachelor’s degree, you increase your lifetime earnings by 84 percent over having only a high school education. Each level of higher education that you complete adds to your earning potential.

Graduating from a college with a big reputation gives you a leg up in competing for the top jobs. However, a well-respected program at a good university will look good on your resume too. And many employers don’t care which college you attended. They care more about your skills, knowledge, and ability to do the work before you. A college degree is necessary for many jobs, which tend to pay higher salaries. So just by completing your degree, you will be increasing your competitiveness. 

While employers may not care what your college ranked on a list, they may be impressed if the school has strong programs in subjects that matter to them. Your college may also have relationships with future employers for your field, and that career assistance and networking with other alumni can help you get great jobs throughout your career.

Finding the right school requires finding the right fit. If you go to a school where you don’t feel you belong, you won’t be as successful as if you find a college that supports your interests and needs. You may care about many factors more than ranking, such as the size of the school, whether it is near or far from your home, the extracurricular activities and sports at the school, and so on. The school environment–socially, academically, urban vs. rural, busy, and loud vs. quiet and calm, all make a difference to your happiness. There are many other ways to find out the details you care about. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard has many tools to find information on all the colleges and universities in the U.S.

Your priorities in selecting a school may favor one factor over another, but here are the main items to consider when you choose a college:

  • It is accredited
  • It has the major you want to pursue
  • Affordability
  • Size of the school–small, medium, or large
  • Location
  • Class sizes
  • Academic facilities
  • Sports and recreation facilities
  • Clubs and activities
  • Diversity of the student body and faculty
  • Safety of the campus and area
  • If online, the quality of the online tools and available supports
  • Alumni networks
  • Career services
  • Student supports like tutoring and counseling

Have fun researching different college choices and considering what characteristics are most valuable to you in a school. If you pick a college where you can enjoy your learning experience, then you have found the number one college in the most important ranking–your own!