College Ratings and Rankings

Lists and rankings that purport to identify the “best” colleges make me uncomfortable. One reason is that as I scan such lists I can always come up with multiple comparable schools that deserve to be included, but didn’t make the grade for some reason.

Take the popular Loren Pope book, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. I’m familiar with many of the profiled schools that impressed the late Mr. Pope as he crisscrossed the nation back in the late 1990s. I worked at one of them, Denison University, in Granville, OH, for ten years. Denison is a superb school, no doubt about it, and I know many alumni who would say that their attendance did indeed change their lives.

I agree with Mr. Pope that small liberal arts colleges offer an emphasis on teaching and personalized attention that isn’t often available at large universities or even Ivy League schools. And yet, why Denison and not Whittier College in CA, why Kalamazoo College in MI and not Coe College in IA?

My dearest friend graduated from Stephens College, a private women’s college in Columbia, MO. I have visited Stephens several times with Betsy, and met many of her delightful alumnae friends. Virtually all of them cite their Stephens experience as pivotal, and all are doing interesting, worthwhile things with their lives and careers. Yet Stephens isn’t featured in Mr. Pope’s book, nor does it receive a high ranking in the most recent list of national liberal arts colleges from U.S. News and World Report.

One of the major bases for the U.S. News rankings is admission selectivity. I am interested in the yearly institutional outcomes, but more for the individual statistics assembled by the researchers than for any certitude that this is indeed a highly valid list, for the worthiness of colleges in my mind is as variable as the range of interests and learning styles of the nation’s prospective college students in any given year.

I very much agree with a quote by Richard H. Hersch, a past college president and present board member of the American Association of Colleges & Universities from a recent Southeast Education Network publication: “Higher Education is the only industry in America where we rank based on input rather than output.” Precisely!

Ahead of official rankings and standout-40 lists I would recommend building personal lists based on program strengths and alumni reviews, digging deeply into reported institutional strengths and making in-person visits whenever possible to check things out first-hand. Colleges also impress me where faculty members are involved in recruiting and wooing students and where they are accessible to prospective students. Let’s tell school stories more often and look at numbers less frequently.

Tips for College Planning: An Interview

Recently I was interviewed online by a writer from Alaska Airlines Magazine. I thought her questions were good and enjoyed answering. Our exchange follows below:

What are some of the most important things that students should consider when deciding where to go to college? Considerations for making a choice vary with the priorities of individual students: institutional reputation, academic selectivity and rigor, geographic region, available programs, traditional vs. alternative campus ethos, and on and on…. Increasingly, given the economy, cost is a factor. Among other things this is fueling enrollment in in-state public schools. One broad factor that I would encourage all students to investigate is the reputation of the school with prospective employers and graduate and professional schools, so they have the assurance of a degree that is truly marketable.

What are common mistakes that students make when trying to pick the right college for themselves? A common mistake is limiting options too quickly. Most students are familiar with colleges near where they live and perhaps the Ivy League and a few other well-known institutions. There are standout colleges of all types all over the U.S., many of which students have never heard of depending on where they live.

Another mistake is assuming that a given school isn’t an option given the “sticker price.” Multiple types of financial aid are still solidly available, and virtually all schools do their own discounting in order to woo desirable students.

How important is it for students to know their majors ahead of time? I have long felt that we do a disservice to 18 and 19 year-olds by expecting them to know their major, especially when 70% of college freshmen are either undecided or change their minds, sometimes multiple times! Most recent high school graduates simply haven’t had enough experience and exposure to make a realistic choice of a major and career path. Thankfully, the majority of colleges have curricular requirements that mandate enrollment in general education courses and electives, giving students as much as a year and a half before they are compelled to declare — while still making real progress toward a degree. In the meantime, there are career counselors and advisors at most schools who can help students narrow their options.

Is there only one right college for students? Absolutely not! With over 2300 four-year colleges in the U.S. there are likely multiple right colleges.  The trick is identifying them and checking them out. This fact, along with the paucity of counselors at many high schools is one of the reasons for the growing profession of independent educational consulting.

How important are gut reactions or first impressions when it comes to campus visits and choosing the right school? I validate the gut check as an important factor, but preferably at the end of a solid visit including a tour, information session, conversations with professors and students, hopefully even an overnight stay in a dorm.

What are some of Pinnacle’s most popular services? College matching (development of a personalized list of potential colleges), essay development and editing, SAT/ACT prep, career assessments/major exploration, and comparative institutional research.

What type of student would benefit most from Pinnacle’s services? Most students would benefit from individualized help tailored to their needs and interests, especially now that the college application process is more complex and competitive than when many parents attended. To get the most out of working with a college planning professional students should be invested in the process and proactive. I enjoy working with all types of students.

Are campus visits important? How can students get the most from a campus visit? A campus visit isn’t absolutely necessary, and may not always be possible, but I think it is advisable. A tour and information session arranged by the admissions office is standard, and many colleges allow prospective students to sit in on a class, converse with faculty members and students, and even stay overnight in a dorm.

How soon should students start thinking about which school is right for them? Serious consideration would ideally begin during the junior year in high school, but I advocate that families begin immersing their kids in thinking about and visiting colleges much earlier in order to establish some perspective. Early visits don’t need to involve the admissions office, and may simply involve walking around the campus, eating at the student union, and/or attending a sporting event or performance of some sort.

Does choosing the right school guarantee success? Nope: students still must attend class, study hard and commit to the process of higher education. In addition, research shows that students who become involved in campus activities are more successful than those who do not. Even a work-study position increases persistence!

Here is the link for the full article:

Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D.

Pinnacle Education Consulting, Denver, CO


How to decide on a College

For the lucky student who is in a position to choose between competing offers from one or more colleges, some observations and advice:

As I said recently to just such a client, there are essentially two methods that I am aware of with definite merit. The first of these involves assembling a set of facts and making a rational, logical choice, based on the result of the comparison. The facts I believe to be relevant include the total cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, books, fees and estimated personal expenses) less any awards (grants and scholarships). Do not include loans in the award category – this only refers to “free money” that doesn’t need to be paid back. The resulting figure is your adjusted cost of attendance for one year.

I would balance the adjusted cost against multiple indicators of the strength of the institution. These might include recognized ranking systems, such as those used by U.S. News and Kiplinger, which are based on key institutional variables. I have my own set of variables that I scrutinize on behalf of clients. These include the selectivity of the school, the freshman retention rate (the percentage of students who return for a second year after the first), the 4-year graduation rate, the average class size and student/faculty ratio, and the percentage of classes taught by professors rather than by graduate assistants. With freshman retention, 4-year graduation stats, and classes taught by professors, the higher these numbers the better. With class size and student-faculty ratio, the lower the better.

For those who have a good idea of their academic major, or interests in particular programs like a sport or study abroad, scrutinizing programs and departments is a good idea. You may wish to initiate contact with these offices to see how receptive and friendly they are to prospective students. If you want to really get down and dirty, seriously plumb deeply buried institutional reports and see if the college has recently undergone accreditation review, or if it participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement. If the answer to either is yes and if any of the summary results are available, the information can be quite eye opening, as it will feature both strengths and weaknesses of the institution in comparison with others.

The alternative method may seem to be quite ephemeral in comparison with the logical comparative method, and yet I can’t discount it. I believe that a student’s gut response following a campus visit is absolutely important and not to be discounted. So many happy and successful college students that I’ve known have said something like the following: “I just knew, within minutes of setting foot on campus that this was the place for me.”

My best advice is to weigh rational assessments and gut reactions together, especially since I absolutely believe that there are multiple right colleges for each student. An institution with a strong profile that is making an overture of interest (possibly in the form of an award) AND that feels like a good fit will probably wear well over time. Happy deciding!

Identifying Your “Right Fit” College, Part II

For any given student, the “right” college match is largely a matter of a good fit between interests/aspirations, intellectual aptitude and learning style, and the total campus environment, both academic and social.

There are unquestionably multiple “right fits” for each student, some never to be considered given the large number of U.S. colleges (there are nearly 4000 colleges nationwide, over half of which are baccalaureate degree-granting institutions), and the likelihood that most students will primarily be familiar with schools in their region as well as some of the well known standouts, such as the infamous Ivy League subset of colleges. When one conceptualizes the college search as a matching process that has identifiable outcomes of interest to students and families, it becomes clear that many schools can equally yield a stimulating and enriching environment, solid preparation for the future, memorable experiences, and a lifelong set of friends.

Here’s an eye-opening little truism: students may be surprised to learn that many lesser ranked schools have placement rates for grad school and medical school equal to or even better than their more expensive, higher profile institutional counterparts. The same thing is true of job placement as well.

So how is a student to narrow the field and decide which schools to apply to? It makes sense to establish personalized priority factors, and to create a list of schools of interest based on these. Key characteristics for matching might include: proximity from home, size of the student body, academic rigor and reputation, faculty-student ratio, strength in a particular academic program of interest, social options available on campus, athletics, opportunities for involvement in special programs like study abroad and internships, and others. Since every college publishes information on their strong points as well as basic, comparable characteristics, it shouldn’t be hard to begin to narrow your list.

An additional important factor for students once they arrive at the campus visit stage is the FEELING of fit – Do you feel comfortable on the campus, do you feel that this would be a pleasant place to spend four years of your life? Did you like the students you met, the professors you conversed with? If you spent the night in a dorm on campus (a good idea, by the way), do you believe you would enjoy the residence life experience at the school?

Of course not every college will accept you, in many cases due to no deficiency on your part. If you don’t fit a school’s admissions profile, if they’ve already accepted lots of students who demographically and academically resemble you, or if it’s a highly selective college and you are merely one of many strong, equally interesting applicants, you may not get a bid. This is more likely at the moment, when the applicant pool is larger than it’s been in a long while at U.S. colleges. But no worries – there are schools that will fit you beautifully where you WILL be accepted, where you may even be courted with an attractive financial aid package.

Helping students find their right fit school and helping them put their best foot forward to increase the likelihood of admission is something I love doing, as it’s an incredibly satisfying form of matchmaking (better than eHarmony and Match.Com!). There aren’t many more fulfilling pursuits, in my book, than helping young people launch one of the most important and enjoyable experiences of their lives.

Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former higher ed administrator, and head of a Denver-based college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,

Identifying Your “Right Fit” College, Part I

Recently one of my student clients shared with me that his ideal college is Humboldt State University, located in Eureka, CA.  Curious as to how a Denver native came to fix on a school in northern California, I asked him how he developed such a far-flung goal.  He didn’t have a firm response, beyond the vague notion that they have a strong biology program, one of his interests.

 Having visited Eureka a couple of times, I shared with him that it reminds me of Boulder in a way – a smaller, even more granola version of Boulder, and with a weirdly fractured population dominated by students, faculty and staff associated with the college, and loggers, who are attached to the awe-inspiring nearby redwood forest.  All of this was news to Will, and at the moment I’m not sure if these impressions increased or diminished his interest in the school.

 This conversation reminded me of myself, more than 30 years ago, as I considered my college options.  For a time I was obsessed with Syracuse University, for reasons that escape me now.  I imagine I read something that made it seem cool. I then became focused on Antioch College, much closer to home for me as a native of southern Ohio.  I was intrigued by its progressive reputation, and I knew a bit about their co-op programs, which had students off campus doing seemingly fascinating things for long stretches of their enrollment.  This lasted until my mother proclaimed “You will attend a communist college over my dead body!” – so … so much for Antioch.  Ohio State offered me a small scholarship, and thus ended my brief period of college hunting.

 Students today have more college choices and more help in identifying their “right fit” college, I’m happy to say.  These include guidebooks readily available in libraries, bookstores and school guidance offices; school guidance counselors themselves, who know a lot, but who often are overburdened with large numbers of assigned students, especially at public high schools; electronic search programs such as Naviance, which invite a student to input key information in exchange for a list of probable matches derived from published data; and independent consultants, such as myself.  An advantage of independent consultants is the personalized attention received by student clients, paired with in-depth, first-hand knowledge of many colleges and universities.

 A good independent consultant considers her or himself a student of colleges, and has direct information about scores of schools across the U.S., as well as contacts at many of those schools, and of course access to information regarding features of those schools and their admissions’ policies.  My clients will benefit from my 20 years in higher education administration and direct knowledge of colleges as disparate as Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Bates College in Maine, Denison University in Ohio, Millsaps College in Mississippi, and Occidental College, in Los Angeles.  I continue to visit and study colleges with an eye to what about them may be of interest to my clients.

 Will hasn’t taken his SAT exams yet, so our investigation of schools is at a beginning stage, but soon he will have a more definite notion of whether he is truly interested in Humboldt State as a result of our explorations together.

 More on “right fit” colleges in Part II, forthcoming.

 Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former higher ed administrator, and head of a college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,


College Search Process Heats Up

U.S. colleges will be bursting at the seams this fall (2008) as members of the largest high school graduating class in U.S. history arrive on campus. The large size of the incoming class of 2012 is blamed on a “baby boomlet,” as kids of the later baby boom cohort come of age.

Local institutions view the shift as a mixed blessing. Tom Willoughby, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment at the University of Denver, shares that DU saw a 32% increase in its applicant pool this spring, with 8333 prospective students applying for a total of 1140 available spaces. At the same time, the recent economic downturn is causing families to scrutinize scholarships and other aid offers extra closely in search of the best educational value – so yields are thought to be somewhat unpredictable.

While the increasing trend toward selectivity nationwide is better news for colleges than for students, it is by no means cause for undue angst for those in the college admissions process. What can college-bound students and their families do to increase the odds of desirable outcomes from their college search in an extra-competitive market? Careful preparation is key, along with a flexible attitude. This fall and next, when the record for the largest class will be broken yet again, fewer students will be in a position to set their sights exclusively on one idealized, highly competitive school and see their dreams become reality. This is a good time for families to consider alternative pathways, such as a year or two at a community college or second choice school, possibly followed by a transfer application to the institution of choice. It’s also not a bad time for ambivalent students to defer enrollment and gain work and life experience for a year or two before heading off to the ivory tower. A gap year, where students pursue travel and alternative study, or intensive volunteer and intern-type experiences can also be a great choice.

Finally, this is a good time to look carefully at the factors that constitute a true quality education and consider some of the lower profile/hidden gemstone schools, like Metropolitan State College of Denver and others, where students receive instruction from committed, engaged faculty and enjoy a degree of success in the world comparable to that of graduates of their more prestigious and selective competitors.

Lisa Ransdell is a faculty member and former college administrator who heads her own education consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC.  She can be reached at