Rankings and Selectivity: What’s the Deal? (Part 1)

This post is part of a series of three posts on the topic of college rankings and selectivity and how much it may or may not matter when the time comes to choose where to apply and where to attend. Check out Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

When I was applying to college I heard a lot of my peers expressing they wanted to get into one of the “best” programs at one of the “best” schools.  They would often cite the US News Rankings, and it was almost a competition for some students to get into the very best institution in their intended major.  Some students looked to highly-regarded, public, major-research universities such as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.¹  Others had their sights set on prestigious, highly-selective, private universities like Northwestern University, Duke University, and even members of the Ivy League.

I, myself, applied to three public, major-research universities², a selective (although not especially so) private school, and a state university, Winona State University, which I ultimately attended.  I was never really worried about applying to the “best” school or a school with the “best” program in my field (I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to study anyway).  None of the schools I applied to were exceptionally selective or very highly ranked, and I didn’t really think about prestige.  I was worried mostly with getting away from everyone I went to high school with because I wanted a fresh start and new experiences.³ But some people who went off to college at the same time I did would imply that because I decided to go to a little known state school, two states away, that I was receiving an inferior or less challenging college education.

But was that actually the case?  Do you get a better education at the more prestigious schools than you do at less prestigious options? Does where you attend college ultimately make that big of a difference at all?


These aren’t really easy questions to answer.  There are so many factors that can affect student success in college and beyond that it is extremely difficult to isolate an individual college as the reason for a students success.

Let’s take a closer look starting with the US News Rankings.  These rankings break down schools by their assigned category — National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges.  Regional schools are further broken down by their region.  In a sense this allows the rankings to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.  The vast majority of data used to create the rankings is collected directly from the colleges being ranked with a few other sources providing some extra data.  This data includes “assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, graduation rate performance” and for national schools “high school counselor ratings of colleges.”

You can see some flaws in the design right away:

  • Schools themselves provide most of the data.  These schools benefit from being highly ranked, so they will potentially have the motivation and desire to only shine the best light on themselves (and maybe even fudge the data).
  • The reputation of the school among peer institutions and high school counselors carries significant weight.  You could argue that schools that have strong reputations stretching back over 150 years would continue to receive high marks for reputation because one of the main things supporting a schools reputation is the reputation it previously held.  A schools reputation can absolutely take a hit for a lot of reasons, but once a school has a strong reputation, it is probably unlikely to lose it.
  • Selectivity plays in a role a school’s rank.  A school that gets a lot of applicants but accepts very few (i.e. has a low acceptance rate) will be more likely to be ranked higher.  A school could choose to implement measures to increase its selectivity without changing the quality of the education provided.  Additionally. these highly ranked schools could only be selecting the most intelligent and highly motivated students who, regardless of where they attended, would finish college on a path for the greatest success.
  • These rankings don’t actually measure the quality of the actual education provided to students.  A highly ranked school may have the best facilities and world-renowned researchers on faculty, but if they do a poor job utilizing those facilities and your classes are all taught by TAs, students at the highly ranked school might be actually learning less and less of value than a student at a more modestly ranked school.

One of my personal heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has summed it up pretty perfectly

Clearly, understanding the value of rankings is not the easiest thing in the world to do.  This really is just the tip of the iceberg.  In the next post in this series, I’ll take a look at a couple recent studies that examined the real-world effect schools have on students in their future.



¹I’m from outside Chicago so due to geography almost no one applied to and attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, but it, too, falls in this category.
² The University of Kentucky, Clemson University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
³ President Obama and I feel pretty much the same way about college
⁴ One friend even mistakenly thought WSU was a private, liberal arts college…Winona State University…

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