Will School Rankings Show you the “Best” Universities in the USA?

A university is not necessarily right for you because its name is familiar and its rankings are high. Don't equate educational quality with name recognition.

Choose the right school for you—not someone else.

Your education is an important investment, so you and your family want to do careful research to find the best school that fits your goals. Because you are far away from the United States and there are so many schools, researching education options thoroughly can be difficult. Therefore, it is tempting put a great deal of focus and value on university and college rankings.

When researching schools and reading rankings, you may ask yourself: What is the rank of this university? Which schools are in the Top Ten? Do these rankings reflect the quality of U.S. universities? Should you make your selection of a university based on a university’s ranking by a magazine?

While rankings do reveal aspects and the quality of a university or college’s programs, it does provide a complete overview of a school. While many fine universities appear in these rankings, far more excellent universities do not. It is important for you to understand how these rankings are done.

In your country you probably take a national entrance exam for university. The higher your mark, the “better” university you attend. But university admission is different in the USA. There are good students and good professors at all U.S. universities and colleges. Students are admitted to top universities for various reasons, including whether their parents attended those schools.

The information used to rank universities comes from the Common Data Set, which is a survey that all U.S. higher education institutions complete annually. The people who compile the rankings develop a criteria based on what they think determines a high quality school. They then use the criteria to select indicators from the Common Data Set to determine rankings. If they included other factors in their criteria, a different ranking would result.

This means that if you rely solely on rankings, you are basing one of the most important decisions of your life upon someone else’s view of what is important in higher education. For example, “selectivity” is often an important element in rankings. This means that the fewer students a university accepts, the “better” it is.

However, in the USA public universities and many private schools are dedicated to offering high quality education to as many qualified students as possible. These universities and colleges also strive to have a diverse student body with people from many different backgrounds and cultures. If a school is top ranked because it admits fewer students, then a quality public university, which admits more qualified students, may not have a high ranking.

Graduation rates provide another example of how rankings may mislead you. If a school only accepts students with high secondary school grades, its percentage of students graduating will be high. However, if a university’s mission is to accept students based on a diverse set of criteria, such as the students marks as well as their extracurricular activities and experience, the school’s graduation rate may be lower. This might reduce the institution’s overall ranking.

In short, rankings based on selectivity, exclusivity and reputation, are questionable indicators of the quality of education you will actually receive at a U.S. university. For example, did you know that a top university’s reputation is derived from its world-class professors, but that these professors rarely, if ever, teach undergraduate classes? It is common at those schools for many classes to be taught by graduate students or junior professors.

Therefore, read the rankings carefully and discuss them with your friends and advisors. Before making your choice, think about what you really want from a university and your education. Research each school to find out what sort of student services are offered and if individual attention and assistance is emphasized. These are especially important for international students. Let your own criteria guide you as you learn more about the schools that interest you. No matter what, choose the best school for you—not someone else.

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A university is not necessarily right for you because its name is familiar and its rankings are high. Don’t equate educational quality with name recognition.