Rankings Play Increasing Role in College Application Choices

A new poll shows students predominantly use the U.S. News rankings to help judge colleges.

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Two-thirds of students polled say they use the U.S. News college rankings to help them judge schools.
Two-thirds of students polled say they use the U.S. News college rankings to help them judge schools.

New research shows the growing influence that college rankings are having with prospective students' college application decisions, with the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings playing the dominant role.

A report and poll released this month by higher education consulting firm Art & Science Group says that unlike previous research in 2002 that showed rankings had limited impact on student choice, their new research shows that has changed. The poll of 846 college-bound students conducted at the end of 2012 shows now rankings matter to a significant proportion of prospective college students. 

The poll asked a lot of questions about the impact of rankings on the admissions and application process. The data was also broken down to show how the influence of the rankings varied by ethnicity or SAT score level. Some of those findings reported by the organization that have particular value to those interested in the U.S. News rankings include: 

• Two-thirds of students surveyed said they had taken rankings into account in making decisions about college applications. 

• Students with the highest SAT scores considered rankings more than lower-scoring students. 

• Students most often used U.S. News & World Report's college rankings to help decide where to apply to colleges. 

• Nearly two-thirds of students surveyed agreed that the rankings are "very important in trying to sort out the differences between colleges." The same proportion disagreed that the rankings "don't matter" and that they "don't matter to me, but they matter to my parents." 

• Seventy-five percent of Asian students reported U.S. News & World Report as the rankings of greatest value to them in making application decisions. They were more likely to do so than Caucasian students, 53 percent; African-American students, 54 percent; and Hispanic students, 45 percent. 

• Asians, at 69 percent, were more likely to report that they discussed college rankings with their parents than Caucasians, 54 percent; African-Americans, 53 percent; and Hispanics, 49 percent. 

U.S. News would like to point out that UCLA's highly regarded annual survey of freshmen has consistently shown the rankings are far down the list of factors that are rated "very important" as reasons behind their decision to attend a particular college. 

It's very important to point out that Art & Science warns colleges that despite the results of their own poll, it would be a mistake for the institutions themselves to pay too much attention to rankings. 

The report's authors state, "We would argue against spending too much institutional time, money, and energy on hand wringing over rank per se and on attempts to improve it. For most institutions, it would be far better to focus on planning strategy that strengthens an institution's competitive position on a substantive basis: differentiation based on educational approach, student experience, innovative teaching, and the like. In short, for most, trying to game the ranking numbers is a fool's errand." 

U.S. News agrees that schools need to focus on educational policies that are best for their students and not what will help them in the U.S. News rankings. The Best Colleges rankings are not meant to be a management tool for college presidents. A school's rise in the rankings shouldn't be used as a basis for proving their policies are working.