What college rankings actually matter?

This time of year I get lots of questions about how St. John’s ranks compared to other colleges. Who doesn’t want to go to the “best” college? But here’s the problem: most rankings don’t tell you which college is best for you.

Problem #1: rankings often arbitrarily divide colleges onto different lists that have nothing to do with undergraduate education.

The 224 colleges ranked by US News as “national liberal arts colleges” don’t include famous colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Why not? US News considers these colleges “national research universities,” entirely based on the percentage of students who receive graduate degrees, so they are ranked on a separate list. Does the percentage of students receiving graduate degrees at your college matter to you? If so, then great, the rankings take that into account. If not, you’re stuck. Applicants to St. John’s overlap with the University of Chicago more than any other college, and yet St. John’s and the University of Chicago aren’t even on the same list.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Do colleges with fewer than 1,000 students even exist? The Wall Street Journal rankings only include colleges with more than 1,000 students. Sorry, St. John’s.

Problem #2: rankings often compare colleges as though they are all the same commodity without substantive differences.

Some national liberal arts colleges have diverse majors across the humanities and sciences, while others specialize in particular subjects. Some have schools of engineering, while others offer no engineering options. Some have a religious affiliation, while others do not. Some offer the study of Ancient Greek (hello, St. John’s!)—most do not.

Do you want to play a sport for fun or get recruited at the highest level? Niche ranks St. John’s a D- for athletics (because the calculation is based on athletic division revenue, titles, and coach salaries) and the Princeton Review Ranks St. John’s #9 for “everyone plays intramural sports” because over half our students play an intramural sport for fun.

How can you rank two colleges on the same scale when they do fundamentally different things?

Problem #3: rankings often bake together characteristics that may or may not be important to you.

Do you care who is elected prom king at your high school? If so, you’re in luck! The most important metric in the US News rankings is the “peer reputation score” where officials at other colleges have to decide whether each college is a “5” or a “1” with no guidelines given to us on the difference between a “5” and a “1.”

Do you care about going to graduate school? If so, you’re out of luck. The Forbes and Wall Street Journal rankings assign the highest weight to colleges based on their alumni salaries after 10 years, which means colleges are penalized that produce PhDs who enter the workforce later.

Do you want a college where faculty are more interested in research than teaching? The Times Higher Education rankings weight 60% of their rankings on the volume of research output and citations. Focus on undergraduate teaching, and you won’t rank very highly.

That isn’t to say all rankings a meaningless. You just have to find rankings that reflect your values.

For instance, if you care about the quality of teaching, US News has specialty rankings on that characteristic. If you care about the quality of faculty, Princeton Review ranks colleges on that characteristic. If you care about the quality of food, dorms, or athletics, there are rankings for all those things, too.

Because most Johnnies thrive in small discussion-based classes, love the distinctive Great Books curriculum, and want professors who focus on teaching and know them by name, it makes sense that St. John’s ranks among the best colleges in America for students based on these characteristics:

#1 Most Classes Under 20 Students (US News)

#1 Most Students Getting PhDs in the Humanities (HEDS Consortium)

#3 Best College for Debaters (College Match Up)

#4 Smallest Student to Faculty Ratio (US News)

#5 Best Classroom Experience (Princeton Review)

#6 Professors Get High Marks (Princeton Review)

#8 Most Accessible Professors (Princeton Review)

#9 Best Undergraduate Teaching (US News)

#10 Students Study the Most (Princeton Review)

#18 Most Innovative Schools (US News)

Because St. John’s is a residential community where students want to make friends and thrive socially, and because diverse perspectives are essential to a college where all classes are discussion-based:

#4 Lots of Race/Class Interaction (Princeton Review)

#5 Most International Students (US News)

#6 Best College Towns in America (Business Insider)

#8 Best Small College Town (USA Today)

#9 Everyone Plays an Intramural Sport (Princeton Review)

#11 Happiest Students (Princeton Review)

#14 America’s Best College Towns (Travel and Leisure)

#20 LGBTQ-Friendly (Princeton Review)

#39 Best Value (US News)

Use college rankings wisely, and you just might end up at a college right for you.

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