The release of more data on college costs and outcomes in recent years has led to an explosion in college rankings that aim to guide students in their selection process. But like any tool, rankings are only helpful if you use them correctly. As you review Money's rankings—and others—follow this advice.
Read the Fine Print
A clear and transparent methodology is critical, says Michelle Kretzschmar, founder of DIYCollegeRankings.com. (We explain our process here.) All rankings are based on some objective data. But all of them also make subjective decisions around what matters most. The methodology will tell you what the authors value: selectivity or access? Research prestige or career success? Money's rankings, for example, put more emphasis on affordability than other college rankings do.
Add, Don't Cut
Rankings websites can be a good first step in comparing colleges on basic quality measures, such as graduation rates, says Kretzschmar. But then you'll have to dig deeper to decide if a college is a good fit and value for you personally. That means you should use rankings to discover new schools—something Kretzschmar says many families struggle with—rather than to narrow your list.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
Rankings are, by definition, about naming winners. But that often comes down to tiny variations in score calculations, not major differences in the underlying data. As an example, there's a distance of less than 0.03 in the underlying scores between Amherst College (No. 70) and Bentley University (No. 85) in Money's rankings this year. Don't obsess over small differences between the colleges you're interested in.
Go Beyond the Numbers
Recent research by Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at Gallup, shows that ratings from alumni can accurately signal a college's value to prospective students. As few as 20 randomly selected alumni from a college are enough to provide a powerful review of a school's value, Rothwell found. Of course, you can't mimic his experiment, but you can flesh out rankings information by tracking down a few alumni. Ask them questions like: "Was your experience at this college worth the cost?" and "Would you recommend this school to someone like me?"