In the US, a whole industry has arisen focused on the ranking of universities and 4-year colleges, with the majority of these rankings focused on bachelor's and master's degree programs. There are two main types of rankings: rankings of institutions and of programs in particular fields.
National and international organizations such as US News & World Report, The Princeton Review, The Washington Monthly, BusinessWeek and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) based in Shanghai, China, regularly publish general rankings designed to identify the "best" graduate and undergraduate institutions according to quality and value. In some cases, universities and colleges are also ranked according to their institution type: for example, US News & World Report has separate ranking of liberal arts colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and specialty schools. Less "official" rankings can also be found in Rugg's Recommendations on the Colleges, Consumer's Digest, and in student-based resources like StudentsReview.
Rankings of programs look at and compare the individual programs of US colleges and universities. The most commonly ranked programs are business and engineering. Some of these have rankings in additional publications, such as Forbes, Financial Times and Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. But there are many more programs for which you can also find rankings in the publications that rank institutions. Rankings that focus on graduate rather than undergraduate programs can also be of use if the school offering the master's program also offers an undergrad program; then these rankings can help you choose where to pursue your bachelor's.
Another source of information for university and college program ranking is professional associations: these organizations sometimes publish online reports of student surveys on various schools and programs, which provide still more school or program "rankings." These associations often offer awards and honors for teaching excellence, and looking at who they have honored can also be used to supplement your 'ranking' of schools. As well, schools and programs are often specifically ranked each year by their respective industry-specific journals, and you may want to scan more general journals about university education in America (such as Education Week) to see which schools are mentioned and what is said about them. This kind of news may not be ranking per se, but the information is yours to use and interpret.
Each of these sources, however, uses its own particular set of criteria for ranking schools and programs. In the case of the controversial Gourman Report (which looks at undergrad programs in all fields), the author specifically refuses to disclose his methodology. How then should all these rankings be interpreted?
First, the ranking reports often come with detailed data to support conclusions, and while data collection may be criticized, the editors of these reports usually make an effort to ensure that statistics are comparable. So the reports can be used by you to compare institutions and schools on the basis of the data provided.
Second, the statistics that come from the rankings can also suggest topics that need to be studied in more detail. For instance, if a school has a high acceptance rate, high tuition fees but a low graduation rate, you may want to ask why.
All university and college rankings have one other thing in common: they are a list of institutions and schools. Scanning the list might suggest a school that you had not considered or perhaps even heard of. Used this way, the rankings can help expand your list of universities and colleges that can then be researched in more detail.
However, you should never judge based on rankings alone. University and college rankings are important, but there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration. Schools that are less prominent may have a program that suits your needs better than any nationally ranked schools. Lesser known regional universities and colleges can also be a good choice if you wish to remain close to home during your studies. Often times, these schools have the strongest relationships with local industries and employers. Once you have accumulated this information, you can create your own university and college rankings.
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