The Science Behind College Rankings

College ranking lists are useful tools, providing a way to discover and compare schools on a nationwide scale. Often these lists present data provided by the school, such as ACT score and class size distribution, which can help parents and students determine if the school is a good fit for the prospective college student. However, there are dozens of college ranking sources, all promising that their list is the ultimate reference for prospective college applicants. Determining which rankings are the best reference for you and your student means delving into what makes ranking lists different: methodology. For this post we will focus on the two titans of the college ranking platform: US News and Forbes Magazine.

US News uses a formula dependent on quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality. These indicators are divided into seven sectors: undergraduate academic reputation, retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate performance, and alumni giving rate. US News focuses more on admissions data, making US News rankings a face-value ranking for colleges.

Forbes uses a formula dependent on qualitative measures that economists have deemed indicators of an school’s worth as an investment. Forbes methodology focuses on the college experience at schools and includes various factors that measure return on investment, such as student satisfaction, student debt upon graduation, graduation rate, and post-graduation success. This methodology ensures that Forbes maintains a focus on student quality of life and “input vs. output,” or the worth of a college diploma from an institution in the long term in comparison to the overall cost of education.

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