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How College Rankings Work [infographic]


Every year, media outlets run their lists of the top colleges and universities in the country, and every year, prospective students read them and scratch their heads, wondering why this list says that Princeton is the nation’s top university, while that list says it’s Stanford, and so on. The answer is that every list-maker has its own set of criteria for determining the best institutions. To find the best school for you, start by learning what goes into these rankings.

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(Photo Credit: j.o.h.n. walker/Flickr)

College and university rankings are generally split into several types. PayScale’s College Salary Report offers rankings of the schools and programs whose alums earn the highest paychecks, broken down by undergraduate majors, graduate degrees and schools, and two- and four-year programs.

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This makes sense: a prospective student who is pondering a career in fashion design will be very interested to discover that an associate degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology could set them on the path to a high-earning career, but indifferent to the future earnings of a petroleum engineering major or that of an alum of STEM-heavy Harvey Mudd College.

Then there’s the factors that go into ranking the lists. A recent infographic from shows how different publications weight their college and university lists.

Forbes, for example, ranks schools using data from 650 colleges and universities, and measures four factors:

1. Post-graduation success: 32.5 percent. Based on alumni salary data from PayScale and CCAP America’s Leaders list.

2. Student satisfaction: 25 percent. Based on student retention rates and evaluations from

3. Student loan debt: 25 percent. Based on the average federal student loan debt load, default rates, and percent of students taking federal loans.

4. Academic success: 10 percent. Based on which schools’ students win awards or earn PhDs.

5. Graduation rate: 7.5 percent. Based on actual and predicted graduation rates for four-year schools.

To see how other rankings stack up, see the comparison in the infographic, below. Then remember: when you’re choosing the right school for you, all of this research is just a foundation for your decision. Your actual pick should be a combination of the factors that are most likely to set you up for future success.

How College Rankings Work

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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