Each year, high school students and their parents eagerly peruse the U.S. News & World Report college rankings to learn which school is “best” and to determine which school is worth their hard-earned money.
But a recent Politico story pointed out a dark truth: These rankings might be contributing to the rising cost of college — and the growing class divide — in our country.
Here’s a look behind the rankings as well as seven alternative factors to consider when choosing a college.
How U.S. News college rankings might affect college costs
The U.S. News rankings, which started in 1983, analyze a variety of factors to choose the “best” schools in the country.
The problem, as Politico revealed, is colleges can influence their rankings in two main ways: by admitting more rich students and by spending more money.
Not only does it decrease educational opportunities for lower-income students, but it also increases the cost of tuition across the board.
Spending more on faculty salaries and more per student, for example, could increase a university’s ranking, reported Politico. But to afford this increased spending, it must, in turn, hike up prices for students.
If you find it hard to believe a single magazine could wield such force, look at Baylor University. In 2002, it declared a goal of breaking into the top 50 within 10 years, according to Politico. In the years since, Baylor has only risen from No. 82 to No. 71, but its tuition has skyrocketed from $17,214 to $44,040.
That’s an increase of nearly 256 percent. In comparison, reported CNBC, tuition at four-year public colleges increased an average of 87 percent between 2000 and 2013 — a crazy amount but nowhere near the jump at Baylor.
How to stop the runaway rankings train
While it’s upsetting to think of the role these rankings play in the rising cost of college and the stratification of our country, you can’t just tell colleges to stop catering to them.
But as someone who’s choosing a college — the exact consumer the rankings are targeting — you do have some power. You can ignore them.
If students stop placing so much importance on the rankings, colleges might care about them less too. If parents stop buying the magazine’s college rankings issue, U.S. News might devote fewer resources to it.
U.S. News and colleges are businesses; their aim is to give customers what they want. So, if you stop wanting the rankings, change could follow.
7 other factors to consider when choosing a college
Wondering what to consider when choosing a college — instead of rankings? Here are some ideas.
One of the most important things to consider is the cost of the college.
Today’s average graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, which, according to our student loan payment calculator, means you’ll be on the hook for $384 per month after you graduate (assuming a 4.45% interest rate).
2. Retention and graduation rates
You want to attend a school that supports its students — and where students want to remain.
So, check out each school’s retention rate, which is the percentage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year, and graduation rate, which is the percentage of students who graduate within six years.
The national average rates are 61 percent retention and 59 percent graduation, according to College Raptor.
Of course, you can’t overlook the location of the school: its distance from your home, the weather, and its proximity to job opportunities.
But you also should consider how the campus makes you feel. Are you happy? Relaxed?
“Given that education is mostly self-determined, the final choice among comparable colleges is to some degree an aesthetic one,” Chad Orzel, a physics professor at Union College, wrote for Forbes. “That is, you want to choose the place where you will feel most comfortable and most able to make use of the resources provided to you.”
You’re in school to learn, so make sure your school offers the subjects you want to study. Visit different departments and speak to professors. Look at the research and work they’re producing. Check out all the facilities.
Also consider class size and other statistics; don’t put all your stock in which schools U.S. News says are best.
As Orzel pointed out, colleges provide resources such as classes, labs, and events — but you shape your education.
“In the end they’re all just tools that students will use to fashion their future selves,” he wrote. “And once you’re above a minimum threshold of viability, you can find the necessary resources to get a quality education just about anywhere.”
If you’re a “nontraditional student” (which is pretty likely these days), then it’s vital you find a university that caters to you.
Whatever your needs might be, ask about them.
If you have to work during the day, find out if the school offers courses at night. If you have children, see if the school provides child care. If you live near the poverty line, determine what types of scholarships or programs are available to you.
6. Student body
One of the best parts of college is exposure to new ideas, which you’ll experience when you meet people who aren’t like you. So, a student body that’s economically and ethnically diverse is a huge bonus.
Additionally, you should consider the size of the school and the general vibe of the students. (For example, I chose the University of Michigan, a laid-back public school, over Vanderbilt, a fancy Southern school, because I prefer sweatpants to dresses.)
7. Career support
The whole point of attending college — besides making lifelong friends and learning — is to enhance your post-graduation career prospects.
So, in addition to visiting the admissions office, it might be worth checking out career services. Ask what kind of support you can get for internships, jobs, and career development. If you see students hanging around there, that’s a good sign; it probably means they like the resources being offered.
Figuring out where you’re going to spend the next four years of your life is a personal choice, so don’t let a publication tell you where to go. Look at these other factors and pursue the opportunity that’s best for you.
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