College Rankings: Why They Matter

When creating their college lists, some students look for colleges that will offer them opportunities to learn and accumulate knowledge in a particular field. For these students, learning for the sake of learning is the primary if not the exclusive purpose of going to college. Other applicants choose colleges based on geographic factors. For these students, the distance to or from home, the desire to live in a city or a rural area are make-or-break criteria. Other students chose to apply to colleges based on the robustness of colleges’ sports programs or Greek systems. Others decide to apply to colleges based on institutions’ religious denominations, institutional size, or support for students with learning differences (LD).

A final group decides to apply to colleges solely based on the colleges’ U.S. News & World Report rankings, despite the fact that educators have for decades questioned the validity of those rankings.

Top-ranked colleges have high rankings for all the right reasons

The most recent report discrediting the value of U.S. News & World Report rankings was published by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. After examining “all” the evidence about college rankings, Stanford concluded that the best way to use the rankings is to ignore them. Instead, applicants should go for the best fit. As Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford, summarized, “Research tells us that the most successful students, both in college and beyond, are the ones who engage in the undergraduate experience regardless of how selective a school may be. This is almost always the case whether a student attends the top-ranked or 200th-ranked college.” In other words, the value of a student’s college experience is dependent not on the college’s ranking, but on how well a student studies and engages with the scholarly community.

I wholeheartedly agree with Stanford and with those who argue that a college education has a multivalent value that is, in many ways, immeasurable. But I also agree with those students for whom a college’s ranking is an important if not the most important criterion for inclusion on the college list.


Why? Because prestige matters.


I offer my own case as an example. I transferred to Vassar College after one year at a small, relatively unknown liberal arts college in the Midwest. While I did not choose to apply to Vassar because of its ranking (there was no ranking system at the time), after graduation, I found out that Vassar’s apparent prestige really did mean something. In fact, I soon realized that when I said the word “Vassar,” the name was met with a kind of deference. In other words, when I announced that I was a Vassar graduate, it was as if I was being lent an additional cachet of power and significance simply from my association with a prestigious college.

For many students—often (but not exclusively) in my experience those whose parents were raised in different countries–this borrowed prestige has tremendous value. For these families, the prestige of the institution serves as a kind of symbolic capital that can be used here and in the parents’ country of origin. For these families, applying to a highly ranked school becomes the start of a potentially very smart investment, an investment in the possibility of building a family reputation and capital.


Stanford’s educators may agree with two alert fellow scholars who defined prestige as but the “validation of a communal hallucination”. *  However, that prestige’s value is symbolic and or hallucinatory in no way lessens its value.


Want help getting into a top-ranked college? Call me! I’m always ready to help you.

*Colleen Kennedy-Karpat and Eric Sandberg, authors of Adaptation, Awards Culture, and the Value of Prestige

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.