University rankings

During our  discussion on mission statements in Monday’s class, we touched on whether prospective students might make decisions on where they want to apply based on university mission statements. While  some students said that they had looked at mission statements, university rankings were mentioned as a more commonly considered factor in decision making. In particular, university rankings were mentioned as being especially important to international students, who may not have the chance to visit campuses before applying, or might need to justify their choice of university to receive government funding.

I was curious about how these rankings are determined, and decided to do some digging. It turns out that there are a lot of different university ranking systems, and each ranking system considers and weights factors differently, resulting in some variation in ranking orders for schools. Despite the variation in order, the specific schools ranked highest were fairly similar across systems.

The top Google search result for “university rankings” was the U.S. News list of 2019 Best National Universities (1). This system places the most emphasis on student outcomes, such as retention and graduation rates, in calculating rankings. It also heavily weights faculty resources and “expert opinion” on the school’s academic quality, according to surveyed academic administrators and high school counselors.

While these factors are all important in comparing schools, I was surprised to see that cost of attendance and financial aid availability for students were not clearly factored into this ranking system.  These two factors strongly influenced my own decision process when applying to universities, along with the school’s general reputation and program offerings.  Financial aid also played a large part in my final decision on where to attend. The other major deciding factor in my final decision was the opportunity to visit campus and meet current students during an interview weekend for the University Honors program, which helped me get a feel for the general campus atmosphere and student satisfaction. It wasn’t until after I was attending Virginia Tech that I began to care about rankings, first concerning campus food (we were #1 in the country!) and then concerning the College of Natural Resources’ high national ranking.

When searching for and applying to graduate school, rankings did not factor into my decision making at all. In my field of study, graduate tuition is typically paid for as part of a teaching or research assistantship, and most students also receive an additional stipend as part of their position. Thus, positions are very competitive, and the application process is more similar to a job application than to an undergraduate application. Advisors with funding will post open positions on job boards and conduct multiple rounds of interviews before accepting a student. Prospective students can also contact advisors whose labs they are interested in joining to inquire about opportunities, but this approach is less likely to result in an offer, as many professors will only accept new students when they have funding for them. It is not until a student has been offered and accepted a specific position with a specific advisor that they are directed to apply to the overall program or university. As such, I contacted several potential advisors and applied for positions, but only ever applied to two graduate schools (one for my M.S., one for my PhD). Similar to my undergraduate application process, I considered program reputations, but my decisions were primarily influenced by advisors’ research interests and open positions.

Classmates: I’m interested to hear how rankings influenced your application and decision process. Comment below and let me know!






3 Replies to “University rankings”

  1. I have always wondered how much “formal” rankings play into university selection for PhD students. Seems like how your department might compare to other similar departments at other schools might be somewhat relevant. But looking at rankings for the university as a whole is probably less of a factor for PhD applicants than it is for undergrad and masters applicants.

    Ultimately though, I agree- many of us PhD applicants look mostly at a right fit with someone who may serve as an advisor. When you have a highly rated advisor at a highly rated department at a highly ranked university, the decision is easier. I am not sure, however, of what my preferences would be like if for example I was considering a highly rated advisor at a poorly ranked department or university.

  2. Neither rankings nor mission statements have played a role in choosing schools. I was very familiar with my undergraduate institution and its goals before I went there. I applied to two places and chose between them based on affordability. Once in undergrad I realized my college was rated No. 1 liberal arts school in the south by U.S. News and World Report. I think it is a great school, but ranking schools by region like that seems kind of bizarre and arbitrary. I chose the ASPECT PhD program because the program itself is so unique and I was inspired by the diverse dissertations coming from the program. I think Virginia Tech is respected and a good school, but the most important factor to me was the kind of program and research options available to me.

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