National College Rankings: How Do They Impact East Students College Choices?

National College Rankings: How Do They Impact East Student’s College Choices?

In-depth look into the effects of national college rankings: how do the rankings impact East students’/parents’ college choices? How do the rankings positively/negatively affect colleges?


Stuck in a never-ending battle with national rankings, colleges use every means necessary to win and stay on top. Whether it means by changing their strategies or inflating their numbers, these institutions strive to be number one. College — a pathway instilled into the minds of nearly every student at Cherry Hill High School East — serves as a conduit towards higher education and future careers. Yet, how much of an impact do these rankings have on the college choices of Cherry Hill East students? Many individuals nationwide, from parents to students, rely on these rankings when applying to college. But, with publications crafting ranking lists based on varying criteria, a college’s “ranking” can frequently mislead, especially in recent years. Eastside set out to explore the implications of college rankings, whether it be its effects on East’s community or the extremities colleges undertake to improve their rankings.

Criteria Used For Calculating Rankings

College ranking lists, across different publications, each evaluate colleges on their own set of criteria with their own chosen weights. For example, the Forbes’ list, according to the website, “places more weight on alumni salary in jobs, student debt, and graduation rates.” However, the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking, first published in 1983, is widely known as the “go-to source” for college rankings. Despite its long-standing recognition, the criteria it has used to rank colleges over the years has been volatile. The 2024 rankings, for example, led to some of the most dramatic changes in methodology in four decades. Some of these changes included adding new factors like first-generation graduation rates and Pell-recipient graduation rates while removing factors like alumni donations and class size. 

In response to these changes, many public universities like Rutgers University — seeing all campuses move by at least 15 places — and Fresno State — moving up more than 60 places — witnessed dramatic shifts in their rankings. Simultaneously, however, many private universities, especially susceptible to the removal of class size, had their rankings drop; notably, Dartmouth College and The University of Chicago both moved down six places.

The 2024 moderations, despite their unprecedented nature, have been long called for by critics of the U.S. News system, especially amongst leaders in higher education. Still, despite the changes, some critics argue that they were not comprehensive enough. For example, one criteria denounced as subjective and biased — that accounts for 20% of a school’s score  — is a survey of administrators who evaluate the academic standing of other institutions, a criteria that stays intact today.

Critics also argue about the idea of college rankings fundamentally. For example, the President of Princeton University, Christopher L. Eisgruber, wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post, criticizing the system even though the university has been placed first in the U.S. News rankings for years. He wrote that “the idea of picking one as ‘best,’ as though educational programs competed like athletic teams, is bizarre,” because each university has “distinct strengths, structures and missions.”

Negative effects of college rankings on colleges, students, and other affected stakeholder groups have been increasingly pushed into the public sphere. For example, Columbia University, in September of 2022 announced that it had submitted inaccurate data in its participation with the U.S. News & World Report after initially defending its data, which was later shown to include flawed numbers for class size and faculty with terminal degrees. Further, the former Temple University Business School dean was found guilty for faking and inflating data for national rankings between 2014 and 2018 to try to increase revenue. 

Beyond administrators though, the 2021 Netflix documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” showed the lengths to which families will go to try to get into highly ranked schools like the University of Southern California and Georgetown University, initiating widespread discourse on the role of college rankings in facilitating the hypercompetitive, and even sanctimonious, tone surrounding elite college admissions.


East Students On College Rankings

In order to find out how college rankings affect an East’s student perspective, Eastside conducted multiple interviews and a survey of 300 students. In the survey, when asked about if college rankings influence a student’s college choices, 42.7% of students responded with a 4 (1 being not at all and 5 being fully influenced). Furthermore, when asked about if they would apply to a college with a low national ranking, 36.7% responded with a 4 (1 being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree). 

In terms of characteristics students look for in a college, many students had similar wishes: a good environment, location, size, type of program for their field of interest, and school culture. Some mentioned the college’s prestige.

“We work so hard for 4 years, you want to go somewhere reputable that people and employers will hear and be like ‘wow’,” said Ilanna Bernstein (‘25), an East student who has started researching and touring colleges.

On the other hand, some students feel more indifferent to the reputation of a college.

“I get wanting to get that prestige and that ego boost, but that is only one part of the iceberg,” said Elizabeth Ludman (‘24) who has already committed to a college.

“That ego boost” that Ludman mentions refers to the connotation of inflated self found in a student accepted into a highly ranked college. Although this idea has its flaws, East’s current hypercompetitive environment bolsters it. The buzz of what college one goes to and its prestige connects to that student’s identity.

“Every single time someone commits to a college I haven’t heard of, I look it up and I check its acceptance rate and I think that it’s so stupid,” said Sadie Borenstein (‘24) who has applied to colleges.

In recent years, East, as well as other high schools across the country, have created Instagram accounts to which students can post their college commitments. 

“I think everybody, deep down, wants to look cool on the commits page,” said Ludman.

Students, often underclassmen, feel that they have to get into highly selective colleges. Ludman emphasizes that no matter what happens, one will get a job and a living.

“I wish I could go back to my freshman [and] sophomore year so I didn’t waste time looking at a bunch of random schools,” Ludman said.

Aside from East’s culture, another factor of college rankings affecting a student’s perspective comes from a student’s surrounding environment. When asked about how one finds out about colleges they plan to apply to or have applied to, many students replied that they gain their information from friends and family. Many students believe that parents are prouder if a child has gone to a college that is well-known.

Regardless of what others think, a student’s college journey is between them and them only. 

“College is about you. Not anyone else or how anyone else will feel about your college,” said Ludman.


Recent Trends in East student’s College Applications

Eastside researched which colleges have changed the most in the number of East applicants over the past five years and took note of the recent rankings of such colleges. Overall, Eastside noticed an overall increase in the number of applications from East students. This rise of applications has been observed not only at East, but also across the entire country in recent years. Forbes reported that there has been a 41% increase in the number of applications since the 2019-2020 application season.

In some cases, the college with an increase in East applicants also saw an increase in rank since 2019. For example, Florida State University received only eight applications from East’s class of 2019 — a year in which it received a rank of 70. This year’s senior class submitted 28 applications to Florida State. In the fall, Florida State received a rank of 53 in this year’s college rankings. Similarly, Eastside saw an increase in applications for The Ohio State University. In 2019, 25 East students applied whereas 59 students applied this application cycle. Ohio State was ranked 56 in 2019 and currently holds a rank of 43.

In a survey given to 300 East students, 42.7% of students gave a four for how much college rankings affect their college choices on a scale from one to five, with one being not at all and five being fully influenced. Supporting this data, East applications to University of Washington increased from eight for the class of 2023 to 17 for the class of 2024.  Possibly causing this change in the number of applicants, University of Washington saw an increase of 15 in its rank from 2023 to 2024, moving from number 55 to number 40 in just one year.


Nationwide, there has been an increase in popularity of schools located in the south, especially schools in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) for athletics. The SEC is made up of University of Alabama, University of Arkansas, Auburn University, University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, University of Missouri, University of South Carolina, University of Tennessee, Texas A&M University and Vanderbilt University. In the fall of 2024, University of Texas at Austin and University of Oklahoma will join the conference. Following national trends, Eastside noticed an increase in East applications to many of these schools since 2019. Five students applied to the University of Georgia in 2019 while 20 East students applied this year. Similarly, 42 students applied to the University of South Carolina this year, demonstrating an increase from the 13 students that applied in 2019. Despite the University of Alabama falling from number 106 in 2019 rankings to number 170 in 2024 rankings, East saw more applications to the school over the past five years. This year, 24 East students applied to the University of Alabama while, in 2019, there were just nine East students who applied. When asked in the survey what characteristics a student looks for in a college, over 35 students mentioned sports or athletic programs. As the SEC is a major conference within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), it makes sense that these schools have gained popularity among East students.


The research conducted by Eastside revealed a notable surge in college applications from East students over the past five years, mirroring a national trend of increased application rates across the country. Colleges experiencing a rise in East applicants have seen an improvement in their rankings since 2019, indicating a correlation between application numbers and institutional prestige. This trend was shown by institutions like Florida State University and The Ohio State University, both of which witnessed significant upticks in applications alongside enhanced rankings.

Furthermore, survey data from East students highlighted the substantial influence of college rankings on their decision-making processes, with a significant proportion indicating that rankings heavily influenced their choices. This was verified by the observed increase in applications to the University of Washington following its rise in rankings from 2023 to 2024.

Moreover, Eastside identified a growing preference for schools in the SEC, particularly those renowned for their athletic programs. Despite the colleges with decreases in rankings, institutions like the University of Alabama saw an uptick in East applicants, reflective of students’ interest in robust sports offerings. This trend underscores the importance of institutional reputation, rankings and athletic opportunities in shaping East students’ college preferences and application behaviors.


College rankings are controversial resources for aspiring high school students who seek to enroll in higher education and pursue a university that matches their specific interests and preferences. Though there are evident discrepancies in the criteria utilized to determine rankings, the data conducted illustrate the ongoing emphasis that students place on these numbers. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate an institution based on factors aside from its rankings and utilize multiple resources to determine a university’s capabilities.

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