University rankings are of importance

February 10, 2003|by ROSE RENNEKAMP

Every year, several national organizations rank colleges and universities. The rankings make the evening news and the front pages of newspapers in college towns.

As a parent helping your student decide which college to attend, should you care?

The factors that are important to you and your student in making a college selection are unique. Ranking organizations have their own set of selection criteria, and they probably aren't exactly the same as yours - if you can even figure out what their criteria are. Ranking organizations usually don't fully disclose their ranking criteria and the weights given to the various factors.

If you want to know more about rankings, a Web site at the University of Illinois at

Urbana- Champaign is a good source ( The site contains several different college ranking lists and discusses the controversy surrounding the practice of ranking.

The problem with ranking is the assumption that students are looking for the same thing in a school. None of us would buy a house or select a job on the basis of a "one-size-fits-all" ranking, so why do some people put such faith in college rankings?


I recommend that you develop your own ranking system based on the criteria that are most important to you and your student. Sit down together and talk about what is most important to each of you in the selection of a college. You might be surprised at the differences between your view and your student's.

Parents tend to be concerned about the more concrete issues - cost, location, safety and financial aid availability. Students are looking for the right atmosphere, course offerings and housing options.

As a family, you need to come up with the criteria that will satisfy your needs. There are many factors you can consider including, but not limited to:

  • Availability and strength of one or more specific majors.

  • Placement rate into jobs or graduate schools.

  • Location/distance from home.

  • Net cost (the "sticker price," less grants and scholarships).

  • Opportunities to participate in specific sports or other extracurricular activities.

  • Size of school and average class size.

  • Housing options.

Once you've settled on important criteria, you're ready for the college search.

Many valuable resources are available at no charge on the Internet. For example, at students can do a customized search to focus on schools that are best suited to their interests and needs. They can then explore each school's Web site.

Both my daughter and son approached their individual college searches this way. Once they had narrowed their choices to about a dozen colleges, we developed a comparison chart listing the important criteria.

Then they began to "fill in the blanks" about each of the schools. We developed a computer spreadsheet - but it could have easily been done with paper and a pencil. Much, but not all, of the information could be obtained from the college Web sites or viewbooks. They received some information, such as job placement rates, through e-mail.

With spreadsheets in hand, we were able to narrow the search to five or six schools, which the kids then visited.

Some of the more subjective information, about the campus, dormitories and food service, was filled in during college visits.

In the end, my son and my daughter made very different choices in colleges choices reflecting their unique skills, interests and priorities. They chose the schools that ranked high on their own lists, not someone else's.

Rose Rennekamp is the vice president of communications for ACT. Do you have a question you want answered in a future column? E-mail Rose at

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