There is little doubt that the release U.S. News and World Report's annual college rankings is one of the most closely watched events in the education industry. Families monitor the rankings to see what schools their children should be applying to. College consultants use them to advise what colleges students should apply to and what the students' chances of admission are. Even the colleges themselves will come up with "creative" ways to increase their rankings, as a higher rank is often associated with more applicants and higher tuition costs. But, how much attention should should be paid to college rankings?
One one hand, as far as selectivity goes, the rankings are fairly reliable. The schools on top of the list are significantly more difficult to get into than the ones below. They are able to attract more prestigious companies to career fairs. In many instances, they have a stronger alumni network. Lastly, employers will oftentimes use the brand name of a school as a proxy of how qualified an applicant is (if an applicant got into Harvard, they are more likely to be driven and have a strong set of skills just virtue of having done well on the ACT/SAT).
However, what is often overlooked when selecting colleges is the importance of choosing the right major. In fact, in many cases, the choice of major is more important than the college. There is a lack of programmers and engineers today, and many tech companies are willing to go above and beyond to attract students studying in the the tech fields. On the other hand, if you are an English major from Harvard, the employment opportunities are rather limited: become a teacher/professor or write a book. When I see a student tell me they are interested in the STEM fields, I almost never worry about them, regardless of what colleges they are looking to apply to. On the other hand, when I hear a student say they are looking into studying entrepreneurship, I wonder what their job prospects will be after graduating.
That's not to say that all students should pursue STEM in college. As someone who went to business and law school, I can sympathize with those of us who are more humanities oriented. Not to mention, strong communication skills and the ability to relate to others is important in every industry. With that being said, those of us who don't have a natural inclination towards the STEM fields need to be careful about what majors we choose. Yes, if a student is passionate about English and they've been entranced by classical literature from the Greco-Roman period since middle school, then godspeed! But, if a student is choosing business because they don't know what else to choose, that's risky: business degrees, aside from perhaps finance and accounting, are great when coupled with a technical skill, but on their own are not as sought after by companies as many students believe. Fortune 500 companies are usually not hiring students who just graduated from undergraduate business programs for mid-level management positions.
Similarly, students who have mediocre grades and test-scores who are interested in STEM fields should take solace in the fact that they have bright future ahead even if they don't get into the top engineering schools. In fact, it would be a risky decision to try to get into a better ranked school by applying as "undecided" or a less competitive major because there is no guarantee they'll be able to transfer into the program of their choice later.
Suffice it to say that while rankings have their use, there are a multitude of factors that go into deciding what colleges and, perhaps more importantly, what programs to apply to.