How Important Are College Rankings When Choosing a School?

September 15, 2011 | posted by Jeff Sheely.

Mid-September is upon us, and once again the higher education community is buzzing. But rather than the start of classes or even a new football season causing the commotion, it’s the release of US News & World Report’s all-important Best Colleges Rankings that has whole academic world atwitter (pun very much intended).

While the rankings’ annual release always leads to a whirlwind of administrators criticizing the system while simultaneously promoting their school’s new rank, the bottom line is that many students and parents rely on the list as a key part of their college search process.

However, it’s important to remember that the rankings should be no more than one (small) factor as you pick your college. So if you’re not choosing a school based solely on its ranking, what are some other factors that are important to consider?


One of the most obvious factors to take into account is location. If you choose to attend a school that is far from home, you’ll likely be starting over without a built-in support system in your new location. Many students embrace this fresh start and find it to be a key part of the college experience, but you could also find your first few months to be challenging without your long-time friends and family by your side.

In addition to the physical distance, you may also discover that your new home has a vastly different culture than your own. And don’t forget to consider the climate – if you grew up in the South, you could be in for quite a shock when you have to face a New England winter for the first time!

Bottom Line: Make sure you are comfortable with the culture, weather and distance from home of your school – you’ll have to deal with it for the next four years!


Are you the type of person who wants to have one-on-one time with your professors and get to know each of your classmates on a first-name basis? Or do you learn better by sitting in a large lecture hall and taking notes on your computer?

At a smaller school, you will likely get more individual attention in classes, but it can be frustrating to have a limited group to interact with. Conversely, a large campus can provide you with a constant stream of new opportunities both academically and socially, but you can find yourself “lost in the shuffle” if you’re not careful.

Bottom Line: There are benefits to large and small schools, so it’s important to figure out which type of environment will help you excel.

Academic Programs

A school could be ranked extremely highly and be in the perfect location, but if they don’t have your major, it may not make sense to go there. Even if you haven’t decided on a major yet (it’s ok – most high school students haven’t!), take a careful look at the school’s programs and make sure you can find something interesting to study.

Bottom Line: If a school doesn’t have a major that interests you, it’s probably not the right fit.

Financial Aid

Of course, this wouldn’t be College Money Insider if we didn’t mention financial aid. A increasingly important factor for many families, the amount of money you receive can go a long way towards determining whether you can afford to attend a particular institution.

Schools are now required to publish a Net Price Calculator that will give you an idea of what you can expect to pay. If a school seems out of your price range, that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t apply, but you’ll need to start thinking about other ways to pay for it. For example, you could spend a lot of extra time applying for scholarships or working part-time to save money.

Bottom Line: You may have to make some tough choices, but determine upfront what you can afford to pay and how you can afford the school you want to attend.

Personal Fit

I’ve saved the most important factor for last: personal fit. Sometimes there is just something about a school that makes it perfect for you. It could be an academic program, an organization on campus or just the overall vibe you get while visiting. No matter what makes a place feel right, that personal fit is far more important than any ranking ever could be.

I’ll conclude with a personal example: when I started looking at colleges, I initially had no idea where I wanted to attend. I had an idea of my preferences from the categories listed above, but that could have led to any number of schools. However, as I did research and went on visits, the school that fit me best became clear. Despite being over 1,200 miles from home and in a place with a totally different culture than I was used to, my visit told me all that I needed to know. I was sure the fit was right, and the next four years did nothing to change my mind.

Bottom Line: Even if you’re overwhelmed by your options, visit the campuses you like and think about where you can see yourself making the most of your college career.

What About You?

Those are just a few of the factors to consider when choosing your school, but there are obviously many more. What are some things that you’re thinking about as you determine where to spend your college years? Leave us your thoughts or any questions you have in the comments below!

Photo credit.


  • Felicia Gopaul

    When you’ve decided on what career to pursue look into schools that have academic programs that will lead you into the right direction. Be sure to that the benefits going into that school is greater than the cost.nnn

  • Jeff Sheely

    Great advice, Felicia! Students should definitely think about what career they might want to have when looking at schools.u00a0