The college rankings are here! Right in time for students to apply to the best colleges! But wait, which college is best? US News & World Report says Princeton is the best university but Forbes says UC Berkeley is best. The Wall Street Journal says Harvard is best and Niche says MIT. (Forbes is right, of course.) What are you supposed to do with this information?

Colleges have a love-hate relationship with rankings, but if you look at them critically your relationship can be solely positive. College rankings can be very helpful for students and families because colleges want to rank higher and many use the ranking methodologies– particularly US News’– to allocate admissions slots and scholarship dollars. So understanding how rankings work can help you to find colleges likely to offer you scholarships.

US News’ rankings get the most attention, so colleges wanting to move up in the rankings tend to be most focused on their methodology. And that’s where we get to test scores. Test scores account for 5% of US News’ rankings, and US News discounted the score by 15% if less than 75% of a college’s freshman class submitted scores. This was problematic last year when so few students submitted test scores, so for last year the score was only discounted if less than 50% submitted test scores. (For details on US News’ methodology, go here.) Class rank counts for an additional 2% of a college’s ranking.

Here’s the thing about US News’ rankings: the schools at the top don’t change. The order of the top 10– all Ivy-Plus colleges– may change slightly from year to year– after all, it’s hard to produce great press releases that say “Harvard ranked #1 for the 97th consecutive year”– but it’s rare to find a new name in that group. Those schools consistently turn away National Merit scholars with full IB diplomas and weighted GPAs approaching 5.0. So don’t look there for merit scholarships because those credentials are table stakes in the admissions game. But look a further down the ranking scale and you’ll find fabulous schools that do reward good students– and that produce great outcomes for those students.

Niche, for its part, includes selectivity in its ranking methodology. US News removed selectivity from its methodology a few years ago, which is why colleges now issue press releases on their own about selectivity.

Forbes’ list looks considerably different from US News’ list, including two public universities in its top 10, Berkeley and UCLA, and showing Harvard at a lowly #7. Forbes uses primarily outcomes measures, and not simply salaries and graduation rates, in addition to debt and return on investment. Forbes includes other measures of post-collegiate success including measures of leadership and entrepreneurship; accolades such as Nobel prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships, Pulitzer prizes and Rhodes Scholarships; and high-level public service such as members of the Presidential cabinet, Supreme Court, Congress or sitting governors.

So spend as much time as you like on college rankings. If you use them correctly, they can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. And college rankings are a lot like shoe rankings: fit matters more.

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