Demystifying College Rankings

 According to BU Today, only 45.5% was accepted for the Class of 2018 compared to to 34% for the Class of 2016 | Photo by Michelle Cheng.

According to BU Today, only 34% of applicants were accepted for the Class of 2018 compared to 45.5% for the Class of 2016.  |  Photo by Michelle Cheng.

We like to rank everything as if the world is black and white. College rankings, like Princeton Review, Forbes, and the U.S. News & World Report, try to create an objective representation of the college experience by means of a single number. What most people get out of these college rankings is that the “best school” is determined by that number: the lower the number, the better. Students are competitively driven by rankings, making it difficult to look beyond the figure.

While not the only factor, selectivity is often associated with college ranking. For Erica Lee (CFA ’18), a student from the Class of 2018, college rankings were important. “If the school has a good ranking, then you can assume that they have a good staff and good classes. [College ranking] was practically the only reason I chose BU,” she said.

Boston University is getting more selective. According to BU Today, the number of students who applied to BU for the Class of 2017 increased from 44,006 to 52,532, nearly a 20 percent increase from the year before. The surge in applications brings down the acceptance rate. That in turn boosts BU’s ranking by most standards, bringing in even more future applicants.

In PayScale’s 2014 College ROI report, the top elite technical schools–which include institutions like Harvey Mudd, Caltech, and MIT– chart the list of colleges with the highest return of investment. The 20 year net ROI for Harvey Mudd is $980,900. The top 50 schools do include all 8 Ivy League schools and a number of technical schools, but not entirely highly selective schools. Manhattan College (15), a small liberal arts college with an acceptance rate of 66 percent, ranks higher than Harvard University (23) which has an acceptance rate of 6 percent. The private Jesuit school Santa Clara University (27) has an acceptance rate of 50 percent compared to Columbia University (32) which has an acceptance rate of 7 percent. For a successful career post-college, the selectivity of a school seems to matter, although to an extent.

Recently, U.S. News World Report came out with its 2015 Global Rankings, and listed Boston University 37 out of 500 universities. The ranking is impressive, but what does the number mean? How is the way USN&WR rank universities globally different from how it ranks them nationally?

Screenshot of U.S. N&WR Top World Universities ranking 2014-2015 | Photo by Michelle Cheng.
Screenshot of U.S. N&WR Top World Universities ranking 2014-2015.  |  Photo by Michelle Cheng.

The methodology for USN&WR World Ranking focuses on global reputation rather than the programs within institutions. The factors–research, publications, number of PhDs given, and reputation abroad–are derived from the Thomson Reuters’ Academic Reputation Survey. But important attributes, like retention rates and student satisfaction, are missing. The data USN&WR uses emphasizes the universities’ value to the corporate world, but is not as helpful for potential applicants. While we may cheer about the new ranking, are we cheering for something that really reflects what makes us “proud to BU?”

If there are any doubts about USN&WR report’s global rankings, its national rankings are much more student-friendly. When it comes to college rankings,  USN&WR ranking of National Universities is probably the best source for students to start when looking at colleges. The methodology, derived from the Carnegie classification, is used extensively by higher education researchers and has been the basis for its college rankings since 1983. Factors like undergraduate academic reputation, retention, faculty resources, financial resources, graduation rate performance, and alumni giving rate create this list.

Last year, Boston University ranked 41 in the USN&WR national ranking, jumping up 10 spots from the year before. The noticeable change in ranking reflected the quality of academics and resources at BU. On last year’s USN&WR list of the up and coming schools, BU was chosen for “promising and innovative changes in the areas of academics, faculty, student life, campus or facilities.” BU also joined the Association of American Universities, an elite organization of the top 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada. Only three other Boston schools – MIT, Harvard, and Brandeis are on the list. But USN&WR is just one of many companies out there that rank schools, and not all of them are so kind.

In Forbes’ Top College 2014 list, BU ranks 89 out of 650. The Forbes list distinguishes itself from competitors by emphasizing what students are getting out of their school, which is a realistic approach for a student looking for a place worth spending $60,000 a year on. While the other rankings highlight BU’s reputation and quality of academics, the Forbes ranking explores the results of students’ four years at college asking, “Will they have a successful career with a degree from BU?”

BU Admissions is modest about their rankings. Colin Riley, the head of BU’s media relations, says BU appreciates the rankings, but also knows that it can change any day. For level of importance, “ranking would not be the first thing, but people talk about them,” said Riley. “The most important thing is for students and parents to talk to people who went to BU and who had experiences here.”

A lot of students think about ranking when they’re deciding where to go to school, but ranking is usually trumped by something closer to home.

The best way to see if the school is a best fit is to visit the campus. BU Campus visits start at the Alan and Sherry Leventhal Center | Photo by Michelle Cheng.
The best way to see if a school is the best fit is to visit the campus. BU Campus visits begin at the Alan and Sherry Leventhal Center.  |  Photo by Michelle Cheng.

Arrien Bertman (SAR ’17) knew that Boston University was highly ranked but saw the numbers as arbitrary. “I had wanted to go there since I was in 9th grade, being drawn in by the programs and opportunities offered, the campus environment, student life, and the people I had been able to talk to in years past,” he said. “The most important thing was that I was happy where I was and with what I was doing.”

For others, affordability was more important than rankings in choosing a college. “I was considering [Syracuse’s] Newhouse program which is higher ranked than BU’s COM program.” said Jinette Disla (SMG ’17) who originally intended to study PR but switched to marketing in college. “However, financial aid played the largest role in my decision. BU offered me more aid in comparison to Syracuse.”

For Michelle Kim (CGS ’18), college ranking played a huge factor in her decision to apply to BU, but it was still not the only reason. During her senior year of high school, she had two choices: CGS Boston-London Program at Boston University with no financial aid or Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon with a full ride scholarship. She considered ranking as a huge factor because it meant more opportunities for her in the future. However, she used college rankings not to determine where she should go, but to assure herself that she belonged here.

“I care about college rankings because it tells me how competitive, academic, and driven the students and faculty at the school are,” said Kim. “It makes me feel proud to be part of a highly ranked university and makes me want to push myself harder to prove that I belong there.”

Schools want to attract the best students just as much as students want to go to the best schools. But for all the different rankings out there, no one can show the whole picture.

College rankings are useful in the preliminary college search and to casually brag about in a conversation about whose school is better, but the ability to boast about your school comes from what you do there. Most elite schools determine whether they want you by what they think you will bring to the school. The rankings are just a byproduct.

About Michelle Cheng

Michelle Cheng (COM '17) is the Managing Editor of The Quad. She writes about higher education, digital culture and lifestyle. She has previously interned at Forbes, New York Family and Upworthy. Reach her at

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