One important criterion of being an informed college admissions consumer is reaching how colleges and universities compare to each other. We typically use rankings to do this.

Rankings compiled by Niche.com that are making the rounds on social media rank The University of Texas at Austin as the number one public university. Governor Greg Abbott even tweeted this, as if Texas politicians have anything to do with the productivity and aims of the tier-one research flagship university. President Powers’s driving mission aimed for UT to be the top public university in the nation.

Mission accomplished? Not so fast. It is easy to share these headline grabbing articles without digging deeper.

How can UT be the number one public university by one metric yet number sixteen in the annual US News and World Report rankings? How can UT be ranked number 53 amongst all American universities in US News but receive a number 46 ranking amongst universities all over the world according to the Times Higher Education?

Differences in positions on a rankings list are due to the methodologies that these publications use to sort out and compare universities. Each list uses a different methodology. When being an informed consumer, it is important to examine what factors they consider. For example, the niche.com rankings (the first I have seen this particular list) use data that the universities self-report cataloged by the Department of Education. It covers a wide variety of factors from student life, athletics, academics, and data about retention and graduation rates.

US News, on the other hand, skews heavily towards private universities that are very selective in their admissions criteria. Consequently, only UC-Berkeley cracks their top twenty overall, and you see an overrepresentation of private universities in the top fifty. At first glance, US News rankings give the impression that private universities are superior to their public counterparts – a pernicious myth that contributes to skewing the perception that more cost = a better education.

My preferred ranking for academic quality is the Times Higher Education because it emphasizes research output and the experience in the classroom. This reflects my bias that a university’s goal is to drive research and provide for constructive learning environments. They heavily weight citations and research volume (60%) that correlate to driving innovation and moving science forward. These criteria, for instance, are mostly absent from Niche and US News.

Malcolm Gladwell in a brilliant New Yorker essay “The Order of Things” breaks down the confusion and misconceptions about college rankings better than I ever could. Defining these variables and ranking such vastly different types of institutions, it turns out, is really difficult. It should be required reading for all applicants and their families.

What are we to make of all of this?

I see students and especially overeager parents get so caught up in rankings. There is a certain cache to being the son or daughter in your community that goes to the most selective university – and therefore highest ranked in US News. It is the Rolex watch approach to college admissions – who has the nicest one?

One of my former senior colleagues did a two-week circuit of college fairs in China. She was astounded that not only did many of the students she encountered know UT’s program rankings better than she did, but it seemed to be the singular criterion driving their college search.

Citing rankings as the end-all, be-all is not a very good idea. Informed consumers should check out a few different rankings. Examining the methodologies provide insight into what factors that particular publication considers and helps align your values with their criteria. If you’re not so caught up in research, Times Higher Education may not be of much interest to you. If you’re looking for an all-around university that looks at a large number of variables, then Niche.com may be of some help.

These rankings give prospective students and their families a good idea of the big picture. If a particular university is cracking the top 100, it may have a lot of advantages of a university ranked number 300. But the differences between number 15 and number 24? Probably significantly less than the differences in your learning needs and life preferences.

One of the most important questions relates to Return on Investment. In my next post, I will talk about my favorite classification system from Forbes.com