College Rankings and Your Future

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

If you’ve begun the college search, then you’re familiar with the term college rankings. You’ve looked up U.S. News’s latest college rankings to see where the colleges on your list fall. You’ve asked mentors, high school counselors, parents, your parents’ friends and everyone else you can think of about college rankings and do they really matter. It can be a confusing topic.

There seem to be two main opinions: Yes, it matters and no, it doesn’t really matter. Some say to pay close attention to college ranking when you’re choosing your college and others say to ignore rankings because the methodologies used in coming up with the rankings are faulty or biased or just plain silly. What’s a poor high school student to do?

UCLA recently released a survey of 192,912 college freshmen who were asked to rate the importance of various factors in choosing their college. College ranking, contrary to popular opinion, was not the most important factor as it came in twelfth. The academic reputation of the college was first on the list, although how the students determined academic reputation if not from the rankings wasn’t explored. Other important factors in choosing a college, according to the freshmen, included being given financial assistance, cost of the school and a good impression during their initial college visit.

Do employers care about where a college hits in the rankings? The answer to that is yes if the future career in question is in investment banking, a prestigious law firm or high finance, especially in the northeast of the country. Otherwise, employers care far more about a job candidate’s maturity, how hard they worked in college as determined by his grades, interpersonal skills and demonstrated technical knowledge. Personal accomplishments and work experience are also high on an employer’s list of considerations. However, graduating from an Ivy League school does have its benefits, mostly from the network of friends you make while going to school. These people can help you find jobs for the rest of your career.

Where your first choice of college falls in the college rankings is one tool you can use in evaluating the school, but keep in mind that it is only one tool of many. Accreditation is more important than the ranking. A college that doesn’t have the proper accreditation for the major or degree you’ re considering shouldn’t make your final list of colleges, as future employers might check the accreditation before they check the ranking.

Overall, it seems that college rankings matter far more to colleges and universities than to most everyone else. If their ranking is good, then the college plays it up big, maybe even using it as a marketing tool. Some colleges have been caught cheating on the information they provide to the ranking organizations, upping students’ SAT scores, for example. While this can inch the college a dab higher in the ranking, it isn’t worth the bad press if the cheating is discovered, as Claremont McKenna is finding out. This California college was discovered cheating on the college ranking, but it is by no means alone in fudging the numbers. One of the college ranking’s weaknesses, then, is the school’s ability and desire to cherry-pick the data they forward on to ranking organizations.

What matters isn’t that your number one choice of college is the best, but if the college is the best one for you. You are the one who will make or break your higher education. College rankings won’t affect your future, but the hard work and dedicated studying you do during college certainly will. Set a good pattern for achievement early, during your high school and college years, and you’ll benefit from it your entire career.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.