Helping students make informed choices as they apply to US universities is of paramount importance. As counsellors, we are expected to support students’ aspirations as well as reassure families that their students will thrive during their university years and there will be a return on investment. Many students and families come to counsellors with a list of schools they hope to attend based on a cursory look at rankings and league tables.  Considering the variety within the higher education landscape, it is understandable that students turn to rankings as a way to prioritize their university research process and to make decisions about where to apply when faced with so many options. However, demystifying these rankings can actually help students find the right school for them.  This paper provides information about the data points and differences among the most prominent ranking organizations. Understanding the metrics used as well as the methodology can help students and families better understand what rankings mean and don’t mean.


Times Higher Education: World University Rankings


Every year, THE publishes its World University Rankings. The 2020 rankings cover 1,400 schools in 92 different countries and are based on thirteen different data points. However, the most significant data points are teaching, research, citations, industry income, and international outlook.

THE rankings are popular amongst international families as it can put schools from different national systems in context with each other. As this ranking system is also vetted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, many families are reassured of its quality. Though those two factors could prove helpful to some families, it is important to point out that “research, citations, and industry income” — three of the most significant data points for their ranking–do not take into account the quality of undergraduate education. Rather, the Times Higher Education ranking emphasises the work of graduate students and faculty as it focuses on research and the money it brings into the university. For example, NYU and the University of Illinois are both ranked higher than Brown University on this list. However, Brown University’s smaller size and focus on undergraduate education means it doesn’t fare as well with these metrics. Yet, Brown might be a better fit for some students who want more faculty attention. Families who want to ensure that their student has enough resources and attention as an undergraduate, may want to look elsewhere for their information.


QS World University Rankings


Though not as extensive in scope as the Times Higher Education ranking, this list also compares national systems to each other. However, the criteria for the QS rankings is different and should be noted. According to the information they publicly release they use the following six data points:

  1. Academic Reputation
  2. Employer Reputation
  3. Faculty/Student Ratio
  4. Citations per faculty
  5. International Faculty Ratio
  6. International Student Ratio

This ranking system is far more invested in employment data, the size of a school’s international student body, and the number of international faculty. For some families, that might be key to how their students would thrive in a university community. However, there isn’t a strict correlation between number of international students at a given school and the quality of the education. Also, employer reputation is difficult to accurately quantify. This data was collected via surveys of opinions rather than looking at which schools do well on the international employment market.


US News and World Report


This ranking is released annually and is highly anticipated in the US. International families may also find it helpful because it focuses only on the US (which may also be their focus) and it also breaks up the rankings into two categories: Research Universities and Liberal Arts colleges. Liberal Arts colleges are unique within the American system and because they do not grant graduate degrees are omitted from other international rankings even though they offer an enviable education.

US News and World Report use the following criteria to tank schools:

  1. Peer Assessment
  2. Graduation and Retention Rates
  3. Financial Resources
  4. Student Selectivity
  5. Alumni Giving
  6. Faculty Resources

Though these criteria all speak to important aspects and opportunities for students, it isn’t exactly clear how these data points relate to the quality of education or if they matter to your student. Also, how this data is collected may be of interest. For example, “peer assessment”, which accounts for 25 percent of a school’s rating, is determined by each school’s “competition”. Peer assessment also gives schools and administrators the opportunity to skew the general outcome of their own institution’s ranking. When looking at US News and World Report’s list, keep in mind that a quarter of every school’s ranking stems from this shaky method of acquiring peer information.

The role finances play in education is important but not always easy to connect to education quality. US News and World Report pays close attention to the amount of money schools spend per student. Most educators believe that the amount of money spent on a student does not accurately indicate the quality of her education, especially because this money is often spent on non-academic amenities like new student unions or well-appointed dorms. Schools often spend money on new buildings and athletic facilities to increase their rankings. Yet, this often means increased tuition the following year.  Money spent on financial aid might better indicate a school’s quality than money spent per student.

US News and World Report also takes into account faculty resources when calculating their ranking. This is perhaps the most widely accepted aspect of US News and World Report’s rating system because it is the most closely tied to the quality of education on campus. But rating schools based on faculty resources is still a methodological tactic associated with money spent. Many educators believe there are better ways to quantify a school’s quality, like looking at the percentage of professors who hold PhDs or the number of classes taught by teachers’ assistants. Students looking at colleges should also pay close attention to the number of hours professors are available to their students.

There is no denying that rankings are an important tool when researching universities and then doing the important work of creating an application list with your students and families. However, at A-List we want to support counsellors as they help students make this important decision. To help them look beyond the rankings, encourage students to examine other criteria.

Attending university in the US is a significant financial investment. Also, the longer length to degree and the process of acclimating to a new country and culture are other forms of investment many families take into consideration. Deciding if the US is the right choice for you and then narrowing it down to a list of schools requires thinking about what a return on your time and resources looks like.

At A-List, we recommend that you consider multiple factors, including where you will personally thrive (a quality no ranking or data can account for). Here are just a few ways to determine if a school will give you the return on investment you need.

  1. Student Satisfaction: this may be determined by the graduation and retention rate, but the Princeton Review also publishes a guidebook to US universities which provides excellent survey data about individual schools. We know that students thrive academically when they are satisfied and happy with their overall experience.


  1. Graduate School Attendance/ Acceptance Rate: Though choosing where to earn your BA, BS, BFA, is the most pressing issue at present, this degree might not be the last one you will earn. Thinking about which undergraduate institution positions you best for your future graduate program or professional school is a great way to determine if a school is right for you. US schools meticulously track this data and often have it readily available on their websites.


  1. Post-Graduation Employment: If employment after university is your main concern, most schools also track how quickly students are gainfully employed after graduation and which fields they choose. They often connect this data to what students studied as well, providing you a clear, and often surprising, picture of how of the marketability of potential majors. As with the graduate school data, employment information is available on the school’s website.


Though university counsellors will always have to contend with rankings, counsellors can also offer a nuanced approach to these publications. Helping families read the fine print will also help them trust your expertise as you guide them through the US university admissions process. By demystifying the data and redirecting students and families to other criteria which actually speaks to both experience and outcomes, you can help families find the best schools for their students.

A-List UK White Paper 1 – Rankings
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