Earning a college degree has become increasingly expensive, and millions of graduates (and even those who didn’t graduate) continue to struggle under the weight of $1.75 trillion in total student loan debt. In the meantime, the value of some degree programs has become questionable at best, and some college degrees actually have a negative ROI according to recent stats.
Then, you add in the recent scandals around colleges submitting inaccurate data to boost their rankings, and red flags abound.
With all this in mind, those who hope to attend college will want to do so with a plan in mind — and a way to pay. It also makes sense for students to research the return-on-investment of various degree programs so they can have a better idea of what to expect.
That said, college rankings are often considered when choosing schools, mostly because they affirm prestige and help students learn which colleges offer programs they may be interested in. So, I reached out to experts to ask if college rankings should truly be trusted, and their responses were mixed.
Program Rankings Matter More Than General College Rankings
Pierre Huguet, who is the CEO of H&C Education, says that many college rankings put too much focus on measuring the prestige of a school vs. its actual performance. In the meantime, rankings of actual programs matter a lot more than overall rankings since they track and compare specific degree programs to one another.
If you want to get a sense of the strength of a specific school, Huguet says you should be sure to look at rankings for specific majors and not just overall rankings.
“You may be surprised by some of the top 10 lists for particular majors,” he says, adding that the best academic programs for you may not all be Ivy League schools.
Bruce Hanson of First Choice Admissions also points out that college rankings mash together a lot of factors, some of which may matter more to you than others.
“Some students may not care what the average SAT score was or how many of the faculty are published,” he says. “A single ranking can’t reasonably capture the complexity of a college or university.”
Hard Work Matters More
Brett Murphy Hunt, who teaches MBA courses at Assumption College and English at Northeastern University, says that college rankings do not matter for the vast majority of students, especially as they relate to professional outcomes after graduation.
“I’ve witnessed Harvard graduates fail to secure gainful employment,” she says. On the flipside, she has also seen students who have gone to less prestigious schools only to become well-known newscasters, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople in Fortune 500 organizations.
As a teacher, Hunt says she believes that many intangibles a student has can outperform any arbitrary college ranking.
“Having worked with thousands of students in the context of my private business as well as the university classroom, hard work, smarts, and grit will supersede any brand-name school,” she says. “I honestly and truly believe that.”
Rankings Mean Nothing If You Don’t Graduate
Nicholas B. Creel, who serves as Assistant Professor of Business Law at Georgia College and State University, says that college rankings can be useful, but they shouldn’t be the biggest factor considered when choosing a school. For the most part, this is due to the fact that not all schools are for everyone, and that finding a place to thrive is more important.
“At the end of the day, even if rankings were to be the most important factor that decides your success after graduation, that won’t help you if you don’t graduate,” he says.
With this in mind, Creel says students should concentrate most on finding a college they can be successful at.
“Some people are going to thrive at a huge state school in a big city, while other people might have a better chance of success at a small liberal arts university in a small college town,” he says.
If you let the rankings guide you to the exclusion of what works for you, your odds of success are going to “drop significantly.”
College Rankings Can Be Inconsistent
Terry Mady-Grove, who is a college consultant and the founder of Charted University Consultants, also points out that college rankings can change from one year to the next, and different ranking agencies and platforms can list totally different results. With that in mind, you can’t trust that your top-rated school will rank the same by the time you graduate.
Mady-Grove points to the fall of Columbia University from #2 to #18 in the U.S. News and World Reports rankings as a good example of why they should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Columbia was the same fine institution on the day before the rankings came out as the day after the rankings were published,” she says.
Not only that, but the fact there are multiple rankings agencies leads one to question the validity of one result over the other. For example, you may find one
Long-Term Benefits Of Attending A Prestigious School Fade
Brian Galvin, who serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Varsity Tutors, also adds that rankings may matter at first, but the impact can lessen over time. Within a few years of graduation, he says prestigious schools can look great on your resume. From there, fancy degrees are often accompanied by lots of on-campus recruitment and an extensive who’s-who alumni network.
But as time goes on, they’re much less relevant, he says. And at some point, “you’re going to be judged more based on what you’ve done recently.”
By then, your school may not even be ranking as highly as it was several years or decades ago. So, make sure you consider a lot more than college rankings when you choose a college or university. Most importantly, you’ll want to look for a school you want to attend that you can actually afford.
While college rankings can give some guidance for prospective students, they should be taken lightly. Instead, a student should really focus on both financial fit and academic fit when making a college admission decision.
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