What Do National Rankings Mean to Colleges & Universities Anyway?



Every year, millions of high school students are faced with a decision that will shape the course of their lives. This decision will influence many things, such as their careers, earning potential, hobbies, and even their circle of friends. To many, it’s one of the most important decisions they will make before becoming an independent adult. This decision – which will have a lasting and large influence on their lives – is what college or university they will attend.

As students face this choice, there are several tools they can use to help make an informed decision. One of these is the U.S. News and World Report National College Rankings. In this blog we first delve into what the rankings are. Then, we look at the importance of appearing and being highly positioned in these rankings from the perspective of an institution.

What are the Rankings?

Let’s start with what the U.S. News and World Report National College Rankings are. The rankings are simply a list of colleges ranked from best to worst. The colleges that participate are ranked on several categories, including graduation rates, retention, financial and faculty resources, student selectivity, peer and guidance counselor assessments, and alumni donation rates. Each of these categories are weighted and then totaled to give colleges an end score.

The data comes from a multitude of sources, but the largest percentage comes from an annual survey. In this survey, colleges report aggregate data according to the definitions provided by the Common Data Set. The Common Data Set is a list of definitions meant to standardize higher education reporting so that colleges can compare similar metrics. Because colleges all operate a little differently (length of term, aid resources, 2-year vs 4-year, etc.), the Common Data Set allows us to compare apples to apples.

Why are the Rankings Important?

Now that we’ve established how the rankings are determined, let’s talk about why they are important to colleges and universities. Let’s first compare a higher education institution to a standard business.

Business vs. Education

For a business to succeed it needs to attract as many customers as possible. It must also make sure that whatever service or product they offer is of the highest quality. Colleges and universities are the same way. The product and service they deliver is an education. To be successful financially, they need to attract as many students as possible.

When it comes to education, success is measured by test scores, job placements, and many other factors. To score highly in these measures, colleges not only want to attract a large volume of students, but the highest caliber of students they can.

Backed by studies

The U.S. News and World Report National College Rankings help attract both the quantity and quality of students that institutions seek. There have been a number of studies that supported this theory. Some examples:

  • The University of Michigan, in 2010, found that the rankings greatly influence applications and admissions of students that fall in the top 10% of their class. This means that the higher on the list you are the more likely you are to have the top students from high schools apply to your institution.
  • A Harvard Business School study, as cited by a CBS news article, states that rising 1 spot in the rankings correlates to a 1% increase in applications.
  • That same news article also cites a Barnard College and New York University study which showed that if a school is ranked in the top 25 it is linked to a 6 to 10 percent increase in applications.

These studies clearly support the claim that appearing on this ranking – especially if it’s higher up on the list – has significant influence on the volume and caliber of students who to apply to that college or university.


The facts discussed above point to the conclusion that national rankings are being utilized by, and affect the decisions of, a lot of prospective students. To an institution, this means it is essential to score well in the metrics used by the U.S. News and World Report National College Rankings. And to do that, colleges must be able to accurately and efficiently submit the annual survey, as defined by the Common Data Set. Combined, these actions and efforts can offer a college or university a competitive advantage when it comes to competing for students in the crowded world of higher education.

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Dave Crosser is the Professional Services Manager with Evisions, working out of the company's headquarters in Irvine, CA. He graduated from California State University Channel Islands with a degree in Computer Science in 2013. Dave has been with Evisions for three years, starting on the Support Team helping clients learn the ins and outs of Evisions' products, and then most recently as a Sales Engineer supporting and advising potential clients. When not working, Dave enjoys golfing, movies, and his family.

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