For the past several decades, hopeful students leaving high school have been pressured to aim for the most prestigious schools they can qualify for. In and of itself, that's not the worst piece of advice
to give in the general sense: Why should an all-star student settle for second-best? As it turns out, school rankings can have significant effects on how a college stay plays out.
Furthermore, a school's ranking alone may not be enough to determine how strong your specific department will be. Especially if the ranking applies to the school generally or to certain fields of study that do not encompass your own.
First and foremost it is utterly vital to understand that no two lists will rank schools in identical manners. Before you commit yourself to tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, ensure you know exactly what you're going to get out of those loans in the first place!
Most ranking lists will consider the important factors: student retention, academic value per dollar spent and some form of nationwide weight granted based on drawing power a degree from a given institution might afford you. On the other hand, some lists take the basic tenets of ranking and go several steps further. Safety, though not the first topic on any school ranking list, might be more vital to some students than others.
Some lists will add or subtract points based on professor satisfaction, location, student preferences or any other number of qualifying statistics. It's important to know what factors your chosen list considers to be important. It's doubly important to take the word of several lists into consideration, just to ensure there is no hard-set bias at work.
Ranking Schools: Common Issues
At its core, ranking one institution versus another is a tricky proposition. How is it possible to boil down the core educational experience into numerical values when each student might favor those values differently? It may not be possible, to no one's great surprise. Accurately weighing abstract ideas via numbers can be just as subjective as rating a movie on a scale of one to ten: You're probably not always going to agree with the rating.
Further compounding the issue is how a given school's data is collected. Many schools supply their own facts and figures without third-party auditing. The only real sense of fact-checking comes in the form of other schools comparing data with their competitors, but it's difficult to know just how accurate it all is in the end.
Then comes the issue of how the school's internal rankings apply to students, too. Every school contains its own student ranking criteria that could make or break a hopeful student's chance of attending a specific place of learning, only for the school's reputation or its ranking numbers culling students who might otherwise qualify and fit in properly.
School Rankings and You: The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, a school's rank may not be the determing factor for you. How you end up choosing your future school should not come down to which is #4 vs #5 on a ranking list.
If you think you'll miss being away from home and want to visit as often as possible, stay close to home. If you don't want to move away from a budding relationship you may not want to go cross-country on a whim.
To sum up, you need to remember that though college rankings do hold a lot of merit, college fit needs to be the most important deciding factor. Make sure you do thorough research before you make a four year commitment to any place.