Using College Rankings to Evaluate Schools

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College rankings are an important reference tool for prospective students during the higher education search process. Evaluating colleges using ranking lists and other school data can help students narrow down options into a manageable list.

When evaluating schools, you’ll want to look at the following nine key pieces of information that college rankings provide. At the bottom of each section are questions you can ask admissions counselors, current students, and graduates as you research your top choices.

  1. Accreditation
  2. Colleges and universities must meet the minimal standards set by accreditation agencies in order to be accredited. Both institutions and programs can receive accreditation. While there are many accrediting agencies, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), recognizes 60 accrediting organizations that are considered the industry standard. Prospective students should avoid unaccredited schools because they can make it more challenging to qualify for financial aid and to transfer credits to another institution in the future. A degree from an unaccredited school may also prevent students from getting jobs after graduation.

    Where to find this information:

    • CHEA-Recognized Accrediting Organizations
    • U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

    Questions to ask:

    • Is this school/program accredited?
    • Which agencies have awarded accreditation to this school/program?

  3. SAT or ACT Scores
  4. Colleges and universities accept a wide range of SAT and ACT scores. More selective schools will expect applicants to have higher scores. The national averages for SAT and ACT scores are 1500 and 20-21 respectively. If your scores are high enough, you may be able to apply for merit-based financial aid.

    Where to find this information: Most schools publish admissions data from prior years online. You can also call the institution directly and speak with an enrollment advisor.

    See PrepScholar’s list: Colleges with the Highest SAT Scores in the Rankings section below.

    Questions to ask:

    • What are the average SAT and ACT scores of the incoming freshman class?
    • How heavily are SAT and ACT scores weighed in the admissions process?

  5. Cost
  6. The cost of attendance is a major consideration for college students and because of this, there are many college ranking lists that contain this data. Compare tuition to the average in-state and out-of-state tuition costs to find the best value. If you will be taking out student loans, you can determine how long it will take you to repay them based on tuition estimates.

    Where to find this information: Check school websites for tuition estimates. Many colleges provide online net price calculators so you can estimate housing, meal plans, books, transportation, and personal expenses. Also, visit the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) website College Navigator, which allows you to conduct a search for financial data.

    Questions to ask:

    • How much is tuition?
    • What are the estimated costs of other expenses (books, transportation, and personal expenses)?
    • Are students required to live on-campus and what is the cost?

  7. Financial Aid Packages
  8. College rankings place schools in order by the amount of financial aid offered. Find out as much as possible on how the schools you are interested in attending distribute financial aid, so you can get an idea of how much help is available.

    Where to find this information: Contact each college or university’s financial aid office or visit the financial aid section of the school’s website. Studentaid.ed.gov is a website from the U.S. Department of Education that allows you to estimate costs and aid, search for scholarships, and transfer information from your application for federal aid (FAFSA).

    See CollegeAtlas.org’s Colleges Providing the Most Merit Aid in the Rankings section below.

    Questions to ask:

    • What is the percentage of students that currently receive financial aid?
    • What is the average amount of financial aid awarded?
    • Is the majority of financial aid need-based or merit-based?

  9. Class Size and Student/Faculty Ratio
  10. As you evaluate colleges, it is also important to look at class sizes and the student/faculty ratio. A low student to faculty ratio may mean students receive more attention and have a better chance to excel. You will also want to inquire about the average class sizes for your major as well as intro and general education classes (which tend to be larger).

    Along with visiting the school’s website, contact an enrollment advisor for additional information on class size and the student/faculty ratio.

    See College Raptor Big Schools & Small Class Sizes 2016 in the Rankings section below.

    Questions to ask:

    • How accessible are faculty members and does it vary by department?
    • Do students have the opportunity to discuss career plans with faculty members outside class?
    • Do students receive useful feedback on tests and projects?

  11. Reputation
  12. A school’s reputation can be a big influence while you evaluate colleges. It’s helpful for the school to be well-known for the career area you want to pursue. If you plan on joining the workforce after graduation, you want the degree to be valued by employers. For those students who will go on to earn a master’s degree, it’s essential that graduate schools value the degree as well.

    Where to find this information: Ask your guidance counselor about the school’s reputation. Also, check for local alumni groups and meetups so you can ask graduates about their experiences.

    Questions to ask:

    • What is the school’s reputation? Why?
      How valuable was your degree when applying to graduate school or entering the workforce?

  13. Course Offerings
  14. Investigate the requirements for your major and find out which courses are offered to ensure they match your professional goals. Compare course offerings at several different schools to see what they have in common and which classes stand out.

    Where to find this information: Check the online course catalog for descriptions. Speak with an enrollment advisor or admissions counselor.

    Questions to ask:

    • Does the program offer honors courses?
    • Is there an internship or off-campus field experience requirement?
    • Do students participate in community service projects?

  15. Support Services
  16. College students require academic and support services each semester. Academic support may include a career center, tutoring, and writing support. Many students prefer to attend a school with comprehensive counseling and health services.

    Where to find this information: Check the school’s website for a list of support services. Discuss the options with an enrollment advisor and current students or graduates.

    Questions to ask:

    • Do students have access to learning and health support services?
    • Are career planning and job placement services available?
    • Do students find academic advising useful?

  17. Freshman Retention Rates
  18. Freshman retention rates tell you how many students complete their freshman year and remain enrolled the following year. This data can give you a good impression of student satisfaction as well as academic quality.

    Where to find this information: Schools usually publish retention rates online. Also, check with an enrollment advisor.

    Questions to ask:

    • What are the freshman retention rates?
    • What does the college do to ensure that you graduate on time?
    • If rates are low, what are the reasons why (less financial aid after the first year, weak academic advising)?

Browse College Rankings on College Atlas

Now that you know what key pieces of information are included on college rankings, it’s time to evaluate colleges yourself so you can make an educated decision. CollegeAtlas.org contains several ranking lists you should include in your search, including: