Student wearing pink dress smiles at camera.

Behind the Rankings

What rankings mean, and how to judge them


On Monday, U.S. News & World Report released their 2023 Best Colleges rankings. Like any other ranking system, these rankings are a little bit of an art and a little bit science. For some of their rankings, like their most innovative colleges rankings, the ranking is determined by votes from leaders at colleges around the country. For others, like the overall rankings, the rankings are a combination of “reputation” (as determined by other college leaders), graduation and retention rates, social mobility, student-faculty ratio, average class size, professor compensation, test scores of incoming classes, how much money the college has, alumni giving and the percent of graduates who have debt.


I’m never going to tell you that rankings of any kind tell the whole story–because, quite honestly, they don’t. Rankings are, in the end, subjective. Even rankings that are based on numbers are subjective in other ways; for example, take a look at how U.S. News comes up with their rankings. Maybe you agree that a ranking of colleges should include all of these factors. But do you agree with the way they’ve weighted it? If you were making your own personal ranking system, would reputation be 20% of the ranking, class size 8%and graduation rate 17.6%? Or is your ranking system different?


Let me answer that for you: it is, and it should be. Because you’re the one making the ranking and going to college. If I had been making my ranking when I was a senior in high school, location would have been somewhere on the list, my major would have been a significant part of the ranking and at least 2% would have been dedicated to whether there was Coke or Pepsi in the dining hall. We all have things that are important to us that make our ranking system different.


So, at the end of the day, why do I still talk about the rankings that Agnes Scott received? It’s not because I think they should be the most important, or even an important part of your college search process. It’s because I think rankings are one way to tell a story, and I can use the rankings to tell the story of Agnes Scott.


Take, for example, our #1 Most Innovative Liberal Arts College rankings. We’ve had this ranking for five years in a row, and I think it speaks to a core part of Agnes Scott’s DNA. Agnes Scott’s mission is to educate our students to “think deeply, live honorably and engage the intellectual and social challenges of their times.” In order to do the “of their times” portion of that mission, innovation has to be a part of who we are. It’s why we have our SUMMIT experience and the reason we created a curriculum that is based on global learning, leadership development and professional success. And when you’re innovative, you can’t ever stop making changes, so Agnes Scott keeps going. We try things out, different classes and programs, and if it doesn’t meet our students’ needs, we try something else. It’s what the college is at its core.


I’m proud of many of our other rankings. It’s important to me that we were #1 for First-Year Experiences out of all colleges and universities, because I remember how hard it was for me during my first year in college, and how key experiences can make that easier. I love that we’re #3 in Study Abroad because it’s such a core part of our experience starting in the first year with Journeys. My personal favorite ranking is the #7 in Top Performers on Social Mobility, because it means Agnes Scott is meeting our commitment to providing a pathway through and beyond college for underserved students, including first generation and low-income students.


Rankings are just one way to tell these stories, but there are also other ways. I like it when alums tell their own stories. I like when students tell you about what they’re currently doing and experiencing on campus (like what happens when you come for a campus visit). It’s all a part of the “book” of Agnes Scott, if you will–one that is continuously being written.


So here’s my challenge for those of you who are in your college search: figure out what stories are important to you. Make your own ranking system based on those points (even if it includes Coke vs Pepsi, you do you). It’s the best way to figure out your perfect fit.


Rachel West (she/her) is the Director of Enrollment Marketing at Agnes Scott College. She likes telling stories, whether they include rankings or not, and wants her dining halls to have Coke, not Pepsi.

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