Every ambitious high school student getting ready to apply to college knows about the US News College Rankings. And probably every parent of an ambitious high school student knows the flaws of the rankings–or at least they should.
So now it’s all about “fit.” There are plenty of books to educate you on the importance of fit, probably not as many on how to write the perfect college essay, but close. It is also pretty easy to find a website that allows you to select from a list of college characteristics and generate a matching list of colleges.
And since it’s all about “fit,” many of these sites include comments or ratings by actual students attending the college!
You can find a partial list of such sites in the table below. When you visit them, one thing to notice about them is how many of the selection criteria are the same. That’s because they are getting most of their data from the same place, the Integrate Postsecondary Education Data System which is run by the US government. The government provides the College Navigator which allows you to search for colleges much like other college search sites.
However, like other sites, it is limited in that it you have to choose from their possible answers. Let’s use student body size as an example. The various size categories used by five different college search websites follows:
|College Board||CollegeData||College Navigator||College Search||Princeton Review|
Less than 2,500
5,000 to 9,999
Less than 5,000
The College Board classifies over 2,000 institutions into just three groups. I’m sure plenty of people would find a college of 2,500 undergraduates vastly different from one with 14,500. The College Navigator site provides the most flexibility since you can select a range based on the categories it provides. So you could select schools with populations from 3,000 to 5,000 or 3,000 to 10,000. But you’re still stuck with their categories, 3,000, 5,000 or 10,000-2,500 is not an option.
This issue happens with admissions, Greek participation, race/ethnicity, college test scores, students living on campus, cost of attendance, and many other factors. Then there are categories that are available at some websites but not others such as disability services, out of state students, and student/faculty ratios.
Depending on what characteristics you’re looking for, you might end up visiting multiple search sites to generate a list of colleges and ultimately still not have all of the information you’re looking for.
However, why shouldn’t you? pick your own characteristics and values to search on? The College Results website by the Education Trust doesn’t bother with categories, you get to enter actual numbers for your search (where appropriate.) Depending on your priorities, you can export the results into a spreadsheet to form the basis of your custom college ranking.
This is how I used the information to create a college ranking for my son. We had a few things we already looking for in a college.
- a strong liberal arts program
- history and classics majors
- a small school where junior would not be lost in the crowd
- undergraduate teaching focus
- no graduate students in his department to maximize research opportunities
- chance to play on the baseball team
The history major wasn’t going to be a useful limiting factor in creating a target group of schools, after all most schools offer history. Given that we expected not to qualify for financial aid, graduating in four years became a priority. So I started by searching for four year schools with a graduation rate of 50% or better and a minimum of 700 undergraduates. This gave me a list of just under 400 schools.
At this point I had this list of variables to work with.
- Grad Rate
- Median SAT
- Pct Pell
- Pct Under Represented Minority
- Student Related Expenditures / FTE
- Carnegie Class
- Total Degrees Awarded
- % Degrees Awarded in Arts & Sciences
- % Degrees Awarded in Business
- % Degrees Awarded in Education
- % Degrees Awarded in Health Sciences
- % Degrees Awarded in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
- % Men
- % Part-Time
- % Age 25+
- % Admitted
- Open Admissions
- % submitting SAT scores
- SAT Verbal 25th Percentile
- SAT Verbal 75th Percentile
- SAT Math 25th Percentile
- SAT Math 75th Percentile
- % submitting ACT scores
- ACT Composite 25th Percentile
- ACT Composite 75th Percentile
- Instructional Expenditures / Total FTE
- Student Related Expenditures / Total FTE
- Educational & General Expenditures / Total FTE
- Percent Full-Time Faculty
- Full-Time Undergrad Student to Faculty Ratio
First, I eliminated women only schools by sorting on the percentage of men category. Anything less than 10% male is likely to be a female only undergraduate program. This eliminated 18 schools.? 20 schools didn’t list any information for the category.
I eliminated any schools with less than 10% women on the same principle which consisted of only three schools.
I deleted another 13 that were listed as specialty schools under the Carnegie Classification.
Since I was looking for liberal arts focus, I? also eliminated:
- 16 schools that had more than 40% of their degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
- 11 that had more than 30% of their degrees in Health related fields
- 13 with more than 40% of the their degrees in Business
I can’t claim any scientific method for the cut-off numbers. Basically, I would sort the data based on the field in question, say Business, and start looking for an appropriate cut-off. For example, I might initially consider a 30% cut-off for business but noticed it would eliminate schools that I thought should be in the group for consideration. When I moved the number up to 40%, I didn’t encounter any such schools so 40% became my cut-off.
Since I was looking for a small, residential Liberal Arts school, I deleted 98 with an undergraduate population of more than 4000 students. I also eliminated 57 schools that had a student population over the age 25 of 11% or more. My reasoning was that this either indicated a sizable graduate student population or a more non-traditional student body.
I then scanned the list for any schools that I might have missed that shouldn’t be in the group such as Cal-Tech. Next, I eliminate the 15 schools that didn’t have baseball. This left me with a list of 156 schools.
Now I had reached the point where I would have to visit each school’s website for more information. This is definitely the subjective part of the search. Ultimately, my goal was to determine the focus of the history department. Since I was looking at such small schools, often with only four or five professors, it was important to make sure that the department would be offering courses that my son would be interested in.
I would first visit the History Department website to see how many professors they had and what their research interests were. Not having my son’s specific research interest didn’t automatically eliminate them. Next I visited the registrar’s office-not the college catalogue-to see what history courses were being offered each semester.
College catalogues show all the courses that a school may offer but not all the classes are offered all the time. And then there are classes that are called something like “Special Topics in Latin American History” that might have a different subject each time it is offered. The class schedules will tell you how many and how often classes are offered and who is actually doing the teaching.
Here’s where attending a large university has an advantage, more than likely you’ll be able to find classes in the area you want.? However, there is another reason to check the class schedule even if you are looking at bigger schools. Many of the schools will list the actual enrollment of the various class sections that will give you an idea of how many “small” classes are available compared to larger classes. You would expect to see large lower-division classes with the class size dropping significantly for the majority of the upper-division classes. Some schools don’t make this information available to public users which automatically raises questions on my part.
Okay, back to the history departments. I thought I would develop a simple rating system: 1 would be acceptable, 2 would be good, and 3 would be great. But as I started going through the websites, I realized that not all ones and twos were equal, so some received a 1+, others a 2.5, and some a 1-. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a 1.5 and a 1+. I know that a 1- meant that the school had to offer something else very compelling to get my son to go there since their history department wasn’t so great.
While reviewing the history selections, I would also make notes of other interesting facts such as
- honors programs
- special history centers
- departmental journals
- unique study abroad opportunities
- presence of Classical or Ancient Study programs
- unique core curriculums
I was also looking for other things to include on my spreadsheet. We were interested in colleges that had a January Term. This information is actually available in the IPEDS data but? I didn’t know that at the time. We also wanted to know if credit was given for CLEP exams since my son had taken two.
Some of the information I wanted wasn’t available on the websites. My son thinks he wants to be a history professor so we wanted to know what percentage of the school’s graduates attend graduate school. I would first check for this information on the College Board website where it is listed under the majors category. Sometimes the information wouldn’t be available and I would check the Princeton Review site which would list the information under careers.
While at the College Board site, I would also look up the percentage of students who joined a fraternity or sorority and the percentage of undergraduates who lived on campus.
Finally,? I would visit the Peterson’s website for information on the school’s endowment. There were two reasons for this. The first is that a healthy endowment is the basis for a lot of the college’s development. And second is that if it’s just as easy to go to a school with a wealthy endowment as opposed to a poor one, why not go to the one with the wealthy endowment? Interestingly enough, the size of the endowment didn’t seem related to the actual student related expenditures. One school’s endowment was twice the size as another but actually spent a $1,000 less on students than the other.
So what did I do with all of this information for 150 schools? I created our customized rating system to rank the schools. At the time, based on what I thought was important to my son and what seemed like meaningful differences between the schools I rank the following variables:
- Not D3 school: -1 (son probably wasn’t good enough to play baseball at a
- Percentage of Full-time faculty less than 60%: -1? (having faculty
around full-time would seem an overall positive for students)
- Accepts CLEP Exams: +0.5 (as we progressed through the application
process, this wasn’t as important to us)
- Percentage of graduates attending Grad School greater than 30%: +1 (this
was important for future plans and what we thought the general students’
attitudes towards academics would be)
- Percentage of graduates attending non-professional graduate schools
greater than 20%: +1 (son isn’t looking to attend medical or law school)
- Percentage of graduates attending non-professional graduate schools
greater than 40%: +0.5 (you can see we thought this was an important factor)
- Percentage of undergraduates living on campus less than 70%: -1 (son was
interested in a traditional, residential school)
- Percentage of students joining Greek organizations greater than30%: -1
(we didn’t think a high percentage would lead to the type of campus culture
son would like)
- Offered Ancient or Mediterranean Studies: +1 (this is the main history
interest for my son)
- Percentage of degrees in Business greater than 30%: -1 (this gets back
to wanting a strong liberal arts experience at a small school)
- No formal Classics majors: -0.5 (many of the classes son is interested
in are usually taught by Classics faculty)
- Offers a January Term: +0.5 (this seems like a very good way to study
abroad or try different things without committing an entire semester)
So what were the results?
The table that follows shows the schools sorted by the ranking system. The status column indicates which made it onto our priority list (p) for possible visits and more research. The history column shows my subjective rankings for the history departments. Schools that have a greater than 1 history ranking are color coded by acceptance rates. We didn’t think our son had the qualifications or desire to get into the very competitive schools and we were also looking for merit aid.
|p||2+||St. Olaf College*||3.5||3|
|p||1||Augustana College – Illinois||2||13|
|1||Loyola University New Orleans||2||13|
|p||2||Ohio Wesleyan University||2||13|
|1+||Sewanee: The University of the South||2||13|
|1.5||St Mary’s College of Maryland||2||13|
|p||2-||Trinity University – Texas||2||13|
|1-||Birmingham Southern College||1.5||23|
|p||2.5||Franklin and Marshall College||1.5||23|
|p||2+||Illinois Wesleyan University||1.5||23|
|1||Concordia College at Moorhead||1||34|
|1-||Mount St Mary’s University||1||34|
|p||1.5||The College of Wooster||1||34|
|1.5||Emory and Henry||0.5||50|
|p||1||Gustavus Adolphus College*||0.5||50|
|1||Saint Anselm College||0.5||50|
|1||Saint John Fisher College||0.5||50|
|1||Saint Michaels College||0.5||50|
|1||Saint Norbert College||0.5||50|
|p||1||University of Dallas*||0.5||50|
|1||Washington & Jefferson College||0.5||50|
|3||Claremont McKenna College||0||67|
|3||College of the Holy Cross||0||67|
|1-||Lewis & Clark College||0||67|
|1||Pacific Lutheran University||0||67|
|1||St Lawrence University||0||67|
|1.5||Union College – New York||0||67|
|1||University of Puget Sound||0||67|
|2+||John Carroll University||-0.5||95|
|1||Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary||-0.5||95|
|1||Mount Union College||-0.5||95|
|1+||University of Mary Washington||-0.5||95|
|3||University of Richmond||-0.5||95|
|1||University of Scranton||-0.5||95|
|1.5||Washington and Lee University||-0.5||95|
|1||California Lutheran University||-1||105|
|1-||Fresno Pacific University||-1||105|
|1||Le Moyne College||-1||105|
|1-||Lebanon Valley College||-1||105|
|1||Sacred Heart University||-1||105|
|2||Saint Vincent College||-1||105|
|1||North Central College||-1.5||119|
|1||The College of Saint Scholastica||-1.5||119|
|2||University of Portland||-2||128|
|1+||Western New England College||-2||128|
|1+||Saint Marys College of California||-2.5||136|
|1-||Gwynedd Mercy College||-3||139|
|1||La Salle University||-3||139|
|1-||Maryville University of Saint Louis||-3||139|
|1||William Jewell College||-3.5||145|
Obviously we didn’t go straight down the list and pick the top 20 or 30 schools to go on our priority list. Some of the schools made it because of special programs such the Italy campus for the University of Dallas or the Curriculum 2 program at Gustavus Adolphus. Others went on the list because of interest shown by baseball coaches. Still others because the history department really appealed to the boy.
Others were skipped because my son was never able to get hold of the baseball coach or just realized that his chances of playing on the team weren’t very good. Some schools just didn’t appeal to him when he started looking at them more closely.
Ultimately 14 of the first 22 made the list and 23 of the first 34. A total of 29 schools made the priority list. After visiting all but 7 of them, my son applied to the ten indicated with asterisk. You can see some theoriginal spreadsheet we used here.
No, the rankings weren’t a very reliable predictor of where he actually applied. But just the process of creating the rankings gave a reference point to start with. And as he went through the process of deciding which to visit he became aware of the differences and details that were important to him.
Furthermore, the rankings did help since my son didn’t actually look up all 145 schools (I did but he didn’t). The only schools that he added that weren’t in the top 34 schools were ones that he was already interested in based on a unique program or baseball possibilities. From his perspective, narrowing the list to actually research from 145 to 34 was a pretty good deal.
Furthermore, most people’s initial list would probably much smaller. If you’re only considering in-state public schools, you’ve just made the list much shorter. Or maybe you’re looking for schools that offer nuclear engineering–again, a sure way to trim the list.
But don’t underestimate the value of just trying to rank a few schools–the process can be very revealing. Consider a student who initially plans on attending one of the state’s flagship schools. She thinks a large school will allow her to figure out what she wants to major in. But if she’s good enough to get into the state flagship school, she might be able to attend one of the “lesser” schools that have honor programs, better scholarship opportunities, and maybe even provide special mentoring. Then she’ll have to decide exactly what the appeal is of the flagship school.
Let’s say she’s actually interested in pre-med. Attending a less competitive public school could help her gpa while allowing her to participate in more activities and still be just as competitive of an applicant as if she had go the first school and had the same MCAT score.
Even those planning to attend a community college can find meaningful differences between the schools. Some community colleges offer honors programs. Others have transfer agreements with public and private four year institutions. Some offer a variety of foreign languages, others offer only Spanish.
The point is that as you start your college search, you are not limited to searching only on the search characteristics provided by the various websites. Simply a careful review of the results of these searches shows how much more additional information is available on which to base your decision. Thinking beyond the confines of the college search/ranking websites, is likely to identify colleges you might otherwise not have considered and result in a more successful college career.
You can start creating your own rankings using the DIY College Search Spreadsheet.