Which College Academic Rankings Can I Trust?

You search diligently for the college that seems the most prestigious or the best for your chosen field. In the process, you begin to use college rankings. But, which college rankings can you trust?

College rankings have garnered controversy over the past few years, and some colleges refuse to participate in well-known rankings such as the one produced by U.S. News and World Report. The colleges that refuse to participate argue that the methods used to rank colleges are flawed.

But, those colleges won’t escape rankings, as many other sites have generated rankings based upon student surveys and through public records. Rankings have become more popular, and it appears that they won’t go away. Some colleges have recognized this fact and have become creative with their statistics so their colleges rank higher on the most popular lists.

For instance, David Hawkins at CNN pointed to Baylor University, a college that provided financial incentives to first-year students to take their SAT tests over so their results would artificially inflate their scores – and, in the process – enhance the college’s ranking.

On the other hand, Sarah Lawrence’s president accused U.S. News of making up fake data based upon SAT tests that were never given. Sarah Lawrence no longer collects or examines SAT scores, and the magazine assumed a standard deviation based upon the test as if it had been examined at that college. In the absence of real numbers, this deviation pushed Sarah Lawrence’s ranking down the charts.

So, you’re back to the question, “Which college academic ratings can I trust?” Undoubtedly, ranking systems have altered the way that schools do business. And, rankings have altered how students choose schools. But, something as important as a college education cannot be reduced to a few meaningless numbers.

Instead, you might consider the ranking’s source. Student surveys used for rankings, for instance, might include sour grapes from students who have flunked out or who have a vendetta against a school’s policies or professors. But, you could learn more about a school from your peers than from some statistics. Larger corporate rankings might be more appropriate for your use, but even those studies can be flawed with numbers that have been altered by institutions to achieve a higher rank.

Other rankings are based solely upon Web popularity. Those rankings hope to show the school’s rank through the number of Web site viewers to that college’s Web site. However, those rankings can be skewed by readers who want to learn more about a positive or negative nationally- or internationally-known incident that occurred at any given school.

Probably the best way to use college rankings is to take time to view as many rankings as possible. This way you can glean information for your own list. Then, visit the schools on your list, talk with alumni and write to professors. Get to know the school from the people who are familiar with that institution on a personal level.

You may discover in the long run that academic rankings heavily favor private institutions, and that a state school is the best financial choice for you right now. Or, you may learn that the graphic design school you want to attend isn’t listed in any rankings. Will that stop you from attending that school? Perhaps that’s the question you need to ask.

Featured Colleges

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has a CollegeNavigator tool that we used to help us gather some of the top ranked colleges in the U.S. with programs that can be completed entirely online. Below is a list of accredited schools that have a wide selection of online certificate, undergraduate, and graduate degrees for students to choose from (source: NCES.ED.gov: CollegeNavigator, data 2018).

American InterContinental University
American InterContinental University
American InterContinental University — "Serious about success? With your busy schedule and the desire to move your career forward, at AIU, the Serious U™, you can earn an accredited associate, bachelors or master’s degree at a pace that works for you anywhere, anytime, 24/7. American InterContinental University® is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission."
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Antioch University
Antioch University
Antioch University — "Serious about success? With your busy schedule and the desire to move your career forward, at AIU, the Serious U™, you can earn an accredited associate, bachelors or master’s degree at a pace that works for you anywhere, anytime, 24/7. American InterContinental University® is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission."
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Colorado State University - Global Campus
Colorado State University - Global Campus
Colorado State University - Global Campus — "At CSU-Global, our mission is to provide academically authoritative, career-focused online degree and certificate programs in an adaptive environment beyond traditional higher education models. Designed for working adults, our professionally relevant degrees undergo continual evaluation to ensure alignment with fast-changing market and industry practices and innovation."
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Florida Institute of Technology
Florida Institute of Technology
Florida Institute of Technology — "What we are is a private, coeducational, residential, research-intensive, doctoral granting university located in the beautiful City of Melbourne on Florida’s sunny “Space Coast.” We are a community of researchers, scholars and learners hailing from all around the world. We are engineers, aviators, innovators, leaders, educators, athletes and astronauts. We are Florida Tech."
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Grantham University
Grantham University
Grantham University — "Grantham delivers a high quality, relevant education and offers exceptional flexibility, accessibility and affordability to deserving, working adults trying to better their lives. You do your part by working hard to earn your degree. And we do ours by providing you an exceptional Grantham experience that leads to an even more amazing career."
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Johnson & Wales University
Johnson & Wales University
Johnson & Wales University — "As a student at Johnson & Wales University College of Online Education, you’ll benefit from competitively priced tuition, small class sizes, personal advising, financial assistance options, flexible credit transfer policies and the opportunity to learn from faculty who bring years of expertise, experience, and mentorship to your education - all in our convenient online format."
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Northcentral University
Northcentral University
Northcentral University — "Northcentral University is a premier online graduate university and a global leader in providing unprecedented access to U.S. regionally accredited higher education. We hold all members of our community to the highest ethical standards of professional and academic conduct and the rules and regulations of U.S. higher education."
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South University
South University
South University — "South University is a private academic institution that offers focused and balanced curricula at the associate’s, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral levels. A broad-based core curriculum is offered, promoting critical thinking, effective verbal and written communication, and skills for life-long learning."
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University of Wisconsin Colleges Flex
University of Wisconsin Colleges Flex
University of Wisconsin Colleges Flex — "The UW Flexible Option is a self-paced, competency-based education format that allows busy adult learners to start any month, study at their own pace, and earn credit using their existing knowledge. To maintain rigorous academic standards, distinguished UW System faculty oversee all aspects of UW Flexible Option programs. Several programs are available in this flexible format, and more are on the way."
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Walden University
Walden University
Walden University — "As a student at Walden, you can participate in online courses on a weekly basis whenever it’s convenient for you; gain practical experience through in-person academic residencies or virtual field experiences; collaborate with expert faculty and fellow students around the corner or around the world; and find the support you need when you need it 24/7."
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