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In part one of our two-part series, we discussed three significant factors on which schools are graded by the US News and World Report in their annual college rankings. Today, we pick up where we left off, covering each of the three categories that have the least impact on USNWR rankings before tackling the biggest and most problematic factor in their methodology.

Financial Resources: 10 Percent

In this category, USNWR looks at, “average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures.” With such a broad definition of money spent, it’s hard to figure out how much of that will actually make a direct impact on a given student’s education. Instead of looking at an institution’s research expenditures, ask about opportunities to engage in original research with faculty. Rather than being dazzled by the latest technology, ask deeper questions about the instructor wielding it.

Assessing financial resources can give you an indication of the economic health and vitality of an institution, but it can’t tell you much about the availability of financial aid or the impact of those dollars on you. Look beyond the dollar signs and ask about the ways that a school’s funding can provide you with meaningful educational access.

Alumni Giving: 5 Percent

College graduates receive donation requests from their alma mater at least once a month. Schools ask for these donations not only because they contribute to operating costs, but also because the percentage of alumni who give greatly impacts their success on measures like USNWR rankings. Grading a school on alumni giving is an imperfect way of assessing alumni satisfaction (especially for young alumni who may be immensely satisfied but unable to give), but for a national magazine like USNWR, it is simply unrealistic to conduct a survey of millions of alumni nationwide. And that’s one of the major problems with one-size-fits-all rankings like these. Instead of digging for rich, valuable evidence of institutional quality, ranking algorithms sit back and paint institutions with broad and impersonal brush strokes.

Graduation Rate Performance: 7.5 Percent

Thought we’d already covered graduation rate? Well, not quite. In order to provide a benefit for schools that exceed expectations, USNWR gives high marks for schools that graduate a higher percentage of students than predicted when the class entered.

Undergraduate Academic Reputation: 22.5 Percent

Finally, we come to the category that has historically carried the most weight in the USNWR rankings: reputation. Early this year, the magazine wrote, “there is a very strong correlation between overall rank in the Best Colleges rankings and their academic reputation rank.” This should come as a surprise to no one, since rankings necessarily drive reputation and, based on the USNWR methodology, reputation is the single biggest driver of their rankings. At the core of this circularity is the underlying problem with rankings systems in general: we care so much about what other people think that we rarely take the time to ask what’s right for us.

My fellow College Coach consultants and I have talked with families who seem crestfallen at the realization that their student’s top-choice institution will be “No Problem” for them to get into. This shouldn’t be treated as a failing on the part of the student; instead, celebrate that your child is so academically accomplished as to have earned an educational opportunity at a school at which he will truly be happy. Reputation is neither an input, nor a process, nor an output. It has no impact on the friends you make in college, the grades you secure in your courses, or the growth and development you achieve. On its own, your school’s reputation will not get you a job, pay your bills, or outweigh shoddy performance and lackluster skills. At some point, you become the product, with a sense of who you are and how others see you. Choosing the college that produces the best version of you should be all that matters.


Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.