Isn’t it horrible that organizations like US News & World Report rank colleges? Remember the good old days when you could just go to college and not worry about rankings? When admissions departments focused on finding best-fit students, not best test score students?

Please, people, stop the pearl clutching! College rankings present a huge opportunity for families and students if they’re willing to figure out how to use them. Why? Because ever since US News & World Report started ranking colleges back in the 1980s, colleges have been focused on moving up in the rankings. And that means that many schools are on the lookout for students who will help them move up and making great merit aid offers to such students.

There are many college ranking systems but US News is among the best-known, so let’s unpack their methodology because they are telling you what colleges want. US News adjusts their methodology periodically. For example, selectivity used to be a major component but was dropped last year to increase focus on outcomes, particularly for low-income students. Here are the ranking components:

Outcomes: 35%. This includes graduation and retention (22%), graduation rate performance (8%) and social mobility (5%). Specifically, the Outcomes metric looks at six-year graduation rates, retention of first-year students, actual vs predicted six-year graduation rate for the most recent available entering class, and retention and graduation rates for students with Pell Grants. The Pell Grant ranking is “adjusted to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions.”

Faculty Resources: 20%. The biggest pieces of this are class size and faculty salaries (adjusted for regional cost-of-living differences); also considered are degree levels of faculty, student:faculty ratio and percentage of full-time faculty.

Expert Opinion: 20%. “We take a two-year weighted average of ratings from top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – who rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished).”

Financial Resources: 10%. This measures average spending per student on education-related items including instruction, research, and student services. It specifically excludes spending on dorms, athletic and medical facilities.

Student Excellence: 10%. This is the big one! This is based primarily on test scores and secondarily on class ranking. This is why schools offer merit aid to students with test scores that will bring up their average, and this is why you should look for schools where you are in the top quartile or quintile academically as measured by test scores. This is why test prep is a good investment for many families. Test scores account for 77.5% of the Student Excellence ranking. Here is the full description of the Student Excellence ranking component:

A school’s academic atmosphere is influenced by the selectivity of its admissions. Simply put, students who achieved strong grades and test scores during high school have the highest probability of succeeding at challenging college-level coursework;  enabling instructors to design classes that have great rigor.

“Standardized tests: U.S. News factors admissions test scores for all enrollees who took the mathematics and evidence-based reading and writing portions of the SAT and the composite ACT. We weighted standardized tests at 7.75%.
“Schools sometimes fail to report SAT and ACT scores for students in these categories: athletes, international students, minority students, legacies, those admitted by special arrangement and those who started in summer 2018. For any school that did not report all scores or that declined to say whether all scores were reported, U.S. News reduced its combined SAT/ACT percentile distribution value used in the ranking model by 15%. If the combined percentage of the fall 2018 entering class submitting test scores is less than 75% of all new entrants, its combined SAT/ACT percentile distribution value used in the rankings was discounted by 15%.
“High school class standing: U.S. News incorporates the proportion of enrolled first-year students at National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges who graduated in the top 10% of their high school classes. It contributes 2.25% toward schools’ overall scores.
“For Regional Universities and Regional Colleges, we used the proportion of those who graduated in the top quarter of their high school classes. New for this ranking is that high school class standing data from high schools that reported on fewer than 10% of their fall 2018 new entrants received an estimate instead of having their scores discounted. Also new is that colleges that reported high school class standing data on less than 20% of new entrants have their fall 2018 data footnoted. This is a decrease from 50% of new entrants in previous editions.”

Alumni Giving: 5%. This is deemed a measure of graduate satisfaction.

So absolutely use big rankings systems in your college search. Not to target higher-ranking schools, but to target schools that are likely to offer you merit aid. Where do you find these schools? My two favorite websites for this purpose:

College Navigator shows 75th percentile test scores for previously admitted classes, among tons of other useful info such as net price by income level.

The College Board’s College Search feature lets you search by selectivity and test scores.

If you look at college the way colleges do– as a business, not a love story– then you’ll create opportunities for your student to get a great education at a reasonable price. And knowing what colleges are looking for puts you in the driver’s seat to provide it.