How Much Should a College's Reputation Affect Your Decision?

Choosing what college to attend is one of life's biggest decisions. The choice a person makes may have far-reaching effects on her or his future. For many college-bound students, an institution's reputation is very important in making that decision. But should school reputation carry so much weight during the college selection process?

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Reputation and Ranking

America loves a competition. We rank everything - from record sales to television ratings. As a result, we often form opinions about how good or bad something is in relation to another thing of its kind. And so it goes with colleges and universities. For years, led most publicly by U.S. News and World Report, several news agencies and other organizations have ranked our nation's institutions of higher learning. Each year, lists arrive on newsstands amid great fanfare. Universities, students, parents, educators, and journalists quote the lists, analyze the lists and use them to garner headlines, produce marketing materials, and make choices about where to attend school after high school graduation.

Where Ranking Began

The tradition of ranking colleges and universities began in the early 1900's. Influenced by European psychologists, the first college ranking system identified the best colleges in the country according to the numbers of successful men they produced. No consideration was given for what students learned or what professors taught; a college was considered elite if graduates went on to do great things. Later studies of this kind ranked schools by the number of students and alumni chosen for the prestigious Who's Who in America directory.

Universities themselves began ranking for reputation in the 1920's when a Miami University in Ohio professor polled other faculty around the country and developed a list of top universities in varying disciplines based on reputation. These surveys were generally done for personnel at colleges and universities or as scholarly research. Schools very often used the results to determine how they might improve.

The first widespread use of reputational rankings emerged in 1983 when U.S. News and World Report surveyed college personnel nationwide, published their finding, and created a guide to the nation's best schools. Families have been relying on the annual issue for information ever since.

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Do Rankings Really Matter?

The rankings certainly do matter, if only because high school students are influenced greatly by them when deciding where to apply. A recent study conducted by Art and Science, LLC for the College Board, found that two-thirds of the students surveyed considered national rankings in their college application process. Two-thirds of the students also believed that the rankings are useful in determining the differences between colleges. The likelihood that students relied on national rankings rose in correlation with students' SAT scores. Better students consider the rankings more closely.

It is less clear if the rankings accurately reflect the quality of a degree from a particular school, or if some schools are simply better at attracting top-notch applicants. Each year, when publishing its findings, U.S. News and World Report - considered most often by the surveyed students - also releases information about its methodology. In 2013, it claimed to depend more on a school's reputation, graduation rates, and retention rates for returning freshmen and less on information about admission rates and class rank of incoming freshmen.

Beyond College Reputation

To its credit, U.S. News and World Report takes care to suggest that its rankings should not be the ultimate consideration in choosing a college. It suggests that families 'study the data that accompany the actual rankings.' For example, students should examine a particular school's average SAT or ACT scores and see where they fit. They also indicate that families should consider the importance of financial aid availability and campus visits when making a college decision.

The White House is pushing to develop a system that communicates to families the worth of attending a particular college, in the hopes that information will help families understand a school's potential return on investment. As part of a multi-pronged approach, the new rating system arms families with useful information and ranks colleges in a way that makes sense to prospective students.

Great danger lies in depending too much on national rankings when considering where to apply to college. Finding the right school involves consideration of many factors - size, cost, location, available academic programs, among others - and cannot be accomplished by consulting a list. Families and students should carefully consider all factors to find a school that meets their needs.

Confused about how to choose your college? Check out these tips.

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