College Rankings and Admission Stats and How They Should Influence Your Choice

Choosing a college is one of the most challenging decisions of a young person’s life. It’s no wonder they turn to a wide variety of sources for information—including their parents —to try and create that all important list of “reach”, “desired”, and “safety” colleges.

For many high school students, where their friends are headed is a critical factor, as is the college’s geographic proximity to home (for some, the choice is to be close to home. For others, the choice to be far, far away).

There’s also an array of third-party organizations that use a variety of criteria to establish college rankings, allowing selection by graduation rate, tuition cost, student body size, athletic programs, even by starting salary post-graduation. Some of the most popular are the Princeton Review ranking and U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of US and global colleges.

Colleges track their own statistics too, ranging from basic data—how many students applied to the program each year—to more nuanced data about graduation rates versus gender, ethnic identity, and socioeconomic status.

I looked into the Common Data Set myself when I was looking at the graduation record for the University of Denver (DU). I have skin in that game; two of my children are currently undergraduates at the college. DU makes this easily available online, though it’s not obvious that something called “document.pdf” contains this info.

Common Data set 2017-2018

From the Common Data Set, I learned that for the 2018 incoming class, 19,904 freshmen applied for admission (54 percent women); 11,554 were admitted; and 1,504 actually enrolled. That means that 13 percent of those who were admitted ended up attending DU.

How can that be? Turns out that it’s a consequence of the modern college admissions strategy. Most applicants are now submitting their credentials to a dozen or more colleges, hoping to be able to pick their favorite after being accepted to multiple universities.

This is true at every college in the world, actually. There are no institutions where 100 percent of those students that are accepted subsequently chose to enroll and attend. And what about the percentage of undergraduates who stick around and get a degree? That’s a stat you can find too.

The Open Education Database (OEDb) ranks schools by graduation rate, showing that there are only four colleges in the United States that have 100 percent graduation rate: Luther Rice University & Seminary; Maine College of Health Professions; Averett University, Non-Traditional Programs; and Virginia Baptist College. Harvard and Yale are pretty close though, with a 98 percent and 97 percent graduation rate, respectively.

The National Center for Education Statistics has the real scoop, though. The data that you can use as a yardstick: six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time undergraduates overall is 60 percent, broken down as 63 percent for females and 57 percent for males. Interestingly, NCES identifies that “graduation rates were highest at institutions that were the most selective”, which makes sense.

But What Does It All Mean?

Your child creates their own list of colleges they believe will prove a good match based on their criteria. Fun, social, the presence of friends, specialization in a field they want to pursue, geography, dorm life expectations. You also come up with a list that seems like a good match for your son or daughter, which are all reasonably affordable and offer a balance of academic, social, and athletic.

Since everyone’s college experience is different, there’s really only so much that stats and analytics can tell you about which to choose. You can’t assess a ski slope by reading about it, and your child definitely can’t pick the best school based on website stats. Still, there’s a lot of value in understanding how a given institution compares to similar colleges.

A good strategy is to use rankings to help identify a range of colleges your young scholar should apply to, then after acceptances arrive, go through the stats again to see which seem like the best overall fit.

Then visit campuses with a tour arranged by the admissions office. Additionally, if your child has friends who live in the dorms, have them meet their friends without you present. They’ll learn a lot more about the reality of campus life than any organized tour can offer.

Finally, launch your child towards the college of their choice and support them as they go through what is arguably one of the most difficult years of their life so far: freshman year in the dorms at college. Fun, yes. But exhausting, overwhelming, and infinitely distracting too.


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