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How College Rankings Have Changed

How do college rankings help students choose a school? Earlier this week, at SXSWedu, panelists from PayScale, The Princeton Review, Money magazine, and Cornell examined college rankings, how they've evolved over the years, and what that means for the prospective students (and parents) who depend on them to make decisions about which schools to target during the application process.

How do college rankings help students choose a school? Earlier this week, at SXSWedu, panelists from PayScale, The Princeton Review, Money magazine, and Cornell examined college rankings, how they’ve evolved over the years, and what that means for the prospective students (and parents) who depend on them to make decisions about which schools to target during the application process.

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(Photo Credit: bensonk42/Flickr)

The History of College Rankings

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In 1983, U.S. News & World Report released its first college list, based initially on academic reputation, essentially creating a college-ranking industry that has been evolving ever since.

“The idea was to list the best colleges in order of quality, the way Consumer Reports ranked automobiles and dishwashers,” writes Daniel de Vise at The Washington Post.

U.S. News has added other factors to its rankings, including admission and graduation rates, and other publications have devised their own methodologies, weighting factors ranging from Greek life to salary potential after graduation. For example, Money, which first released America’s Best College Buys in 1990, includes college costs and alumni earnings (for which PayScale provides data), and The Princeton Review, which published its first rankings in 1993, bases its list on student surveys that include questions on academics and college life.

Increasingly, life after graduation has dominated the conversation about school choice. In 2008, PayScale released its first annual College ROI Report, which examined college as a financial investment, determining the income boost students are likely to see as a result of attending a given school or program. Most recently, last year the Department of Education debuted its College Scorecard, an assessment tool that helps students and their families evaluate schools based on data like cost, graduation rate, and alumni salary.

How Today’s Rankings Are Different

The price of college has increased 500 percent since those initial college rankings debuted, and as a result, the focus of “best college” lists has shifted. What PayScale’s College ROI Report, College Scorecard, and other college ranking tools have in common is that they’re focused on output, not input. In other words, it’s not about the prestige of who gets in; it’s about the success of the graduates who come out.

And who knows what the future will hold. At the SXSW panel, PayScale’s VP of Data Analytics Katie Bardaro said that rankings can be improved by adding data like:

  • Learning outcomes
  • Civic engagement
  • Employment rates
  • Earnings by major
  • Happiness quotient
  • True net costs
  • Engagement while in school

As these tools evolve, it’s possible that students will not only be able to get a real picture of what their lives will be like on campus, but after graduation and beyond, when they’re happy, not-broke alumni engaged in successful careers.

But even then, the bottom line is that while rankings are useful, but there is no perfect methodology. The important thing to remember is that finding the school that’s right for you, the individual, is more important than finding the school that’s best in a vacuum.

Watch “The Rankers on College Rankings: Why We Do It,” at SXSWedu, below:

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How did you choose your school? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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