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Next Steps Blog


Are Lists Useful?

by Susan Lee
Director of College Counseling

When beginning the college process, the number of colleges and universities available in the United States can be overwhelming. The idea of narrowing down the application list from over 2,000 four-year institutions to a few appropriate matches can be daunting. No wonder lists and rankings are so popular – let other people do the work!

While rankings can be helpful, please understand what you are looking at. The most famous list is the annual US News and World Reports ranking that is published (and sells very well) every year. It is often criticized for using factors that have little to do with the quality of the classroom experience. The methodology includes factors such as alumni giving, selectivity, faculty salaries, etc.  And, while many college administrators negate the value of the US News and World Reports ranking, believe me, they will manipulate admissions policies to increase their own ranking. These strategies have no affect on the classroom and can actually work against finding the best students in the admissions process. The obvious disadvantage for families relying on this ranking is that it has nothing to do with the individual student and the kind of educational environment in which he/she will thrive.

There are many other lists of colleges and rankings that might be more helpful and relevant. There is the list of colleges included in Colleges That Change Lives – schools that foster “a familial sense of communal enterprise that gets students heavily involved in cooperative rather than competitive learning, and a faculty of scholars devoted to helping young people develop their powers, mentors who often become their valued friends.”  The Washington Monthly ranks colleges “based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).”  Kiplinger’s publishes its opinions of the best values in private colleges – based on cost, financial aid availability, competitiveness, academic support, graduation rates and student indebtedness. Outside Magazine lists the “40 schools that turn out smart grads with top-notch academic credentials, a healthy environmental ethos, and an A+ sense of adventure.”  And, then, there is the list of colleges where Urban students have attended for the past five years!  

These are only a few of many lists and rankings. Keep in mind, that any ranked list is subjective. (Read Malcolm Gladwell’s  February 11, 2011 New Yorker article, The Order of Things: What College Rankings Tell Us. The information is based on what other people value in a college. There are a number of colleges that can be the best college for an individual student.  It is that place where she/he is happy, thriving intellectually and socially, and building the skills that contribute to capability, confidence, and well-being in life beyond academia.

Posted by Kristen Bailey on Thursday March, 15, 2012 at 11:54AM


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Susan Lee
Co-Director of College Counseling
415 593 9511

Lauren Gersick
Co-Director of College Counseling
415 593 9512

Leslie Schaffer
College Counseling Assistant
415 593 9519

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