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Alternative Rankings Lists

I get why families refer to US News rankings.

What if there were a better way?

Here are 12 other tools I recommend to families as they assess a school's quality for their student.

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Origin story
12 Days of College Rankings:
A Fake Holiday

In mid-September 2023, I decided I'd put together a twelve-day series on LinkedIn where I shared alternative rankings lists that I often recommend as alternatives to the US News and World Report rankings lists.

I called the series "12 Days of College Rankings" as a joke, and referred to the idea facetiously as a holiday, a festival, and a nationwide tradition. Really, though--who wouldn't want to celebrate good info?

Below, I've reproduced the text and links from the original twelve posts. Let me know what you think at!

Original announcement post:


I've noticed that late September has a dearth of nationally recognized holidays, so in an effort to entertain myself (and hopefully to actually be helpful), I'm starting the inaugural 12 Days of College Rankings. Starting tomorrow, each morning for twelve days, I'll be sharing one college rankings list that I think could be helpful for students and families as a supplement to (or even replacement for!) the US News and World Report rankings (which are fine, but some families don't actually care that much about the factors US News prioritizes in its methodology). I'm excited to share these resources I've been compiling for the past several years!

Day 1


Today marks the first day of 12 Days of College Rankings! Happy Holidays.

The first list of rankings for our series is the list of R1 Research Universities: the class of schools who have the highest amount of academic research activity out of any schools in the US. These schools are recognized as R1 schools because they spend a lot on research and development (both in STEM and non-STEM fields) and confer above a certain number of doctorates per year--these schools labeled as having "very high research activity".

Yes, this list includes Ivies etc., but it also includes Arizona State, Drexel, Georgia State, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Syracuse, Hawai'i Mānoa, Wayne State (for my Michiganders out there), and 138 other schools. Yes, the most selective schools in the US are indeed home to highly-awarded professors who often conduct well-publicized research that has a lasting impact on many academic fields, but schools that are way less selective also do so. Woohoo! That's great news for students.

There are of course great schools that aren't R1; not every school needs to be doing research to provide an excellent undergraduate educational experience (liberal arts schools are a great example; many other schools aren't R1 but are striving to be, like TCU, SMU and others). This gets at what I'd say are perhaps the important foundational questions for families starting the college app journey: "How are you defining success in this process? What is a 'good' college for [each of] you? Why go to college in the first place? What is college for?"

I often recommend R1 research universities to students and families for their Honors Colleges, and/or if students are looking to be able to relax during their app process in knowing that their application will be admitted to at least one school where they can conduct really awesome research (many admit well over 50% and still have awesome graduate outcomes).

Honors Colleges are some of my favorite options for Likely ("safety", "backup") schools--they basically roll out the red carpet and say to students, hey, you're really intellectually curious; join us here and take whatever classes you want (including grad classes/quick tack-on Master's degrees), conduct undergrad research early and often (and frequently get published!), [often] live in a special dorm, drink nice coffee in an exclusive Honors lounge, get a ton of advising, have what's essentially a small liberal arts college experience at a larger (and often more well-resourced) institution (usually one that also has big-time sports, if you care about that), and then get yourself to an awesome grad school/job/post-grad fellowship (more on those later this week). All while usually spending less to go there.

Without further ado, here's the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education's list of R1 Research Universities! Let me know what you think.


Day 2


I've already started to see Halloween decorations around town (eg Halloween costumes for pet lizards--a real thing--at Petsmart back in August). With that in mind, I can't wait to see Target start decorating for 12 Days of College Rankings in April next year.

Welcome to the second day of 12 Days of College Rankings! I'm excited to share another useful list of rankings today.

A frequent answer I hear to the "why go to college?" question is any one of a number of permutations of the response, "to get a good job," often conveyed somewhat bashfully. No shame here! That's how the world works, at least at this point.

Being the obnoxiously thorough, question-asking, value-clarifying college counselor I am, I'm then usually wont to ask what might characterize a 'good' job. Most students (and families) list finding an interesting and rewarding career as being important, followed by having the ability to grow and improve, and also making enough money to build a stable life. Of course, meaning and purpose matter! And it's also nice not to have to worry about money.

I think it's beautiful, wonderfully idealistic, and unfortunately not super realistic to ask students and families (especially those located here in the Bay Area) not to worry about finances when choosing a college and/or major. Regardless of financial need re: cost of college attendance, most students and families are seriously concerned with the earnings potential of a chosen major or career (even if a student's career(s) isn't/aren't relevant to their major--think poli sci majors getting an MBA, for instance).

This is why I love the work of The Burning Glass Institute, which harnesses machine learning to harvest earnings and employment data from (I know you'll skim these; that's fine) the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, Lightcast (labor market analytics), and Glassdoor. Burning Glass then compares these data with career outcomes of graduates of various colleges, ranking schools where the graduates earn a salary premium; that is, where students earn above the median income level in one of several given fields.

Importantly, these rankings aren't counting if, or where, people went to grad school--they only consider (and communicate about) salaries of people who went to undergrad at the schools ranked here. Matt Sigelman, Erik Leiden and the Burning Glass team, please correct any imperfect wording on methodology or data reporting here!

Some schools ranked here won't surprise you--that's a theme for all twelve days of this joyous celebration. There may be, though, some surprises for you, and that's where the real utility of these lists exists for students and families, in my view (in addition to simply finding where your undergrad institution appears (or doesn't) on any given list). Students need help finding Likely ("safety", "backup") schools, and rankings like these from Burning Glass are a huge help!

Let me know what you think; happy browsing!

Day 3


I'm not sure who was setting off fireworks for 12 Days of College Rankings yesterday, but it's pretty smoky here in the Bay Area this morning. Coincidence seems unlikely.

Welcome to Day 3 of this amazing holiday!

If it's not clear already, my work is focused on helping students and families decide what they actually care about when looking for college options.

Often, I think families are [understandably] looking for quick proxies to sort through the overwhelming amount of college info (and college options) in the US (and elsewhere).

The truth is that there are too many 'good' colleges to choose from. In the long run, then, it's more helpful if we can relinquish the idea that there is one best ranking system (or one best school).

The "best" rankings system does not exist! Instead, I'd suggest we tailor our choices of rankings systems based on what we (students/families) care about.

The work of figuring out what's important to us is harder than a quick search for "best schools for __", so we need to consider a variety of measurements of a college's "quality" to notice what we care about.

Today's list is re: grad school--specifically, the schools where students who eventually get their PhD went for undergrad. If you don't care about this, that's great data for you (and for me, if I'm your advisor!). Likes and dislikes reflect priorities and values, and are really helpful data for us as we narrow the scope of the college search and make our search criteria more precise.

Essentially, there are too many schools, so we get to be picky in this process.

It would be reductive to say, "if you want to get your PhD, go to a liberal arts college," but based on National Science Foundation statistics published in 2022 (I'll direct your attention to Tables 6, 7, & 8), a higher proportion of students who graduate from colleges who focus on awarding bachelor's degrees--in other words, proportionally more liberal arts college grads--go on to get their research doctorate (not MD, JD, DDS, or PsyD) than do students who go to R1 research universities (mentioned in Monday's post) for undergrad. Wow!

This site (from the National Center for Science & Engineering Statistics) also separates out undergraduate origins of PhD recipients by academic field, which is super cool! Guess what? In Table 8, scroll within the view box; the top four schools who send the highest proportion of grads on to get their doctorate in Education are HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities): Tougaloo, Spelman, Alcorn State, and Jackson State.

Guess what else? In Table 6, you'll see that when adjusted for school size (using "institutional-yield ratio"), half of the top 50 schools who produce PhD recipients in Science & Engineering are liberal arts colleges, including five women's colleges. For PhDs in non-S&E fields (Table 7), almost 75% of the top 50 were liberal arts colleges, with nine women's colleges appearing.

tl;dr if you want a PhD, go here:


Day 4


I knew I should've thought harder before saying that late September was devoid of holidays; a family I work with for Sempervirens College Counseling gifted me some 蛋黄酥 (puff pastry mooncakes!) today for 中秋节 (Mid-Autumn Festival), which starts on Saturday. Woo! How could I forget? My sophomore year Chinese professor once demanded that I sing a song for our campus Mid-Autumn Festival, and I chose 童话 (Fairy Tale), which is a tragic love story about death from terminal illness. Happy holidays indeed!

For the fourth day of 12 Days of College Rankings, we take inspiration from today's reminder to look outside the US by focusing on global universities rankings lists.

Two of the most commonly-referenced world university rankings lists are released by QS and Times Higher Education (THE; very confusing acronym).

Their websites are pretty, but I actually like the Center for World University Rankings best, as they're the only one of the three lists who do NOT rely on surveys of 'reputation', which can be pretty subjective.

What's different about the CWUR list? They focus mostly on academic awards, research output, and employability (grads employed in 'top' roles at 'major' companies, which yes, isn't perfect).

A key step in evaluating whether or not a rankings list will be useful for your family is to dig around for wherever the page shares the rankings' methodology. Whatever the rankings' creators are choosing to prioritize in their methodology is what readers (students, families) are choosing to use as a proxy for quality--so it's crucial to make sure the rankings are caring about what you actually care about.

THE offers their methodology pretty freely here:

^PDF at bottom of article ("RELATED FILES").

QS makes you really work for it, but they give more detailed info:

^click links for each Performance Lens in grid table ("Academic Reputation," etc.).

CWUR methodology ("technical description"):

It's hard to fault folks for thinking about reputation. Of course, the question of cachet has a lot of sub-questions: are we talking about prestige in employers' eyes? Grad schools'? Your parents'? Extended family's? Your high school community's? Your own? None of these is 'better' to care about than another; these are questions I ask, though, to clarify what we're caring about here.

I like that some schools on the THE and QS lists are a little more accessible (slightly less competitive, at least for now, for some majors): NYU, UW-Seattle, UBC (Canada), UIUC, UW-Madison, UC Davis, Penn State, St. Andrews (Scotland), Purdue.

CWUR's Top 100 also include Minnesota, Ohio State, Rutgers, CU Boulder, Texas A&M, Pitt, UMD, UF, University of Rochester, UF, & University of Arizona.

With a 14% acceptance rate, BU is no longer "less competitive" (sorry), but it does appear on all three lists.

See what you care about, and let me know what you think!

Meant to feature these CWUR rankings!


Day 5


People love sports! Because it's Friday, I thought I'd share a rankings list that's slightly more lighthearted for this fifth day of 12 Days of College Rankings.

Here is the 2023 NCAA March Madness men's basketball tournament bracket, filled out as if the competition were based on "academic progress rate", or a measure of academic success which the NCAA shares more info on here:

Teams also "competed" in this scenario based on graduation rates.

Some people would rather their school win in basketball than win in academic success and graduation rates; for those who find this entertaining, see below!


Day 6


...and, after a weekend hiatus filled with 月饼 and sports I didn't watch, the 12 [Business] Days of College Rankings are back!

Since I've already given away the spoiler--that is, that there is no one "best" rankings system--today, I thought I'd share a useful tool I typically recommend to families who are looking for ways to assess a school's quality.

Quick note--let's change the phrasing:

"Ways to assess a school's quality" =>
"Ways to assess a school's quality" + "for my child"

...meaning, "quality as relates to my child's college education, because my child is different from other children and so will benefit from a different, tailored college experience."

There is no "best" without context here.

Many families, understandably, care about graduate outcomes. So, let's look at outcomes!

What are "outcomes"? Phrasing varies widely: schools say "graduate placement," "first destinations survey," "placement rate," "success rate," "career outcomes report," and other combinations of these and other words. I use "placement rate" because I find it to be the clearest and most neutral.

These all mean, "where do students go, what do they do, and what do they earn (if applicable) once they graduate?"

Colleges calculate placement rates differently. Almost all schools use surveys of graduates, sometimes restricting access to things like graduation caps and gowns until students fill them out; even then, not every graduate does.

Still, "knowledge rates," or the percentage of a college's graduating seniors who complete the surveys, are usually at least somewhat high.

Some colleges only count whether or not a student is employed--so, an engineering grad working as a Starbucks barista (where the skills required are still really challenging to learn!) would count.

Other colleges will list "employed in a role relevant to their field of study," and this is the jackpot for clear info. Most schools won't list this, though.

Colleges are now recognizing that HS students and families (potential customers) care about this, so colleges are starting to publicize placement rate more, usually on university career center websites.

Some colleges, like Purdue, share this data super accessibly, and allow potential customers to sort the data by college, major, residency, and other factors:

Most colleges don't share detailed data, and instead post cool infographics with a wide range of usefulness.

I like to point to ASU's Barrett Honors College, which is featured in a staple of college counseling libraries: a book called Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be. Barrett's outcomes rival those of more selective schools.

The "Barrett class of 2022 PDF" about halfway down the page is my favorite part.

There are plenty of awesome post-grad paths that don't include a big name, but if you're looking for big-name grad programs, fellowships, and companies, digging into placement rate/graduate outcomes/first destinations reports is a great place to start.

Day 7


How are we already in the second half of 12 Days of College Rankings? Next thing I know you'll be telling me October is four days away.

For day seven, I'm sharing two lists, both of which focus on globally-minded fellowships for students graduating from college (or for recent grads): the Rhodes Scholarship and the Fulbright Program.

The first list, published by the Rhodes Trust themselves, lists out any college or university who has produced a Rhodes Scholar, and then lists the number of recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship who've graduated from that school.

The second list, published by the Fulbright Program, shares lists separated out by Baccalaureate Institutions (liberal arts colleges), Master's Institutions, and Doctoral Institutions (you have to choose from the dropdown box labeled "Filter by Carnegie Classification").

Check out these lists, and notice how many schools send students on to these big-name fellowships!

Note: the thumbnail preview here says 10.15.14, but I promise the range of years is up to and including 2023.


Day 8


Day 8 of 12 Days of College Rankings is here! Stop with all the confetti already, please. Super hard to clean up.

Today is focused on the financial health of colleges and institutions. When families think about their student’s financial future, they often think about potential salary. For this, we have helpful rankings of college graduates’ salaries, including The Burning Glass Institute’s rankings of schools’ salary premiums by career field that I shared on Day 2 of this festival; Payscale also offers a list (Santa Clara appears in both Top 20 lists, Becky Konowicz!).

What I’m pointing to today is the financial success of the institution as a whole, though. Here are two measures I suggest families look at.

First, every year, Forbes rates colleges’ financial health. Santa Clara is awesome here again with an A+ rating.

Why care about this? It’s nice if your school will be around for awhile (not that a school who is struggling doesn’t have amazing and impactful professors and staff; they usually do).

Methodology (as usual) is interesting: 10% of the Forbes rating is informed by a school’s yield, or the percentage of students who receive an offer of admission who end up enrolling. This is just another reason schools care about yield (which is a big reason behind policies like REA and ED).

Schools can of course work to improve their rating year to year; the article highlights several such “achievers”. I recommend plenty of schools with a B or better on this list; a lower score does give me pause but I don’t rule out schools for this reason alone.

I find interesting the numbers on how much money schools spend on instruction per student; Wash U takes the top spot here.

I don’t love Forbes’ classification of schools who are struggling as “dunces” but I didn’t write the article.

Second, I point to a boring-looking Wikipedia article (no offense, Jimmy Wales) that lists out schools by the size of their endowments. Forbes’ ratings do consider this (it’s 15% of their rating) but I think it’s nice to see listed out explicitly.

Santa Clara again has an endowment of over $1 billion; theirs is higher than those of several other schools who are technically more selective in admissions (for now).

Why would a family care about the size of a school’s endowment? Lots of reasons. It’s nice to have fresh flowers and refurbished buildings and sidewalks, in addition to new facilities and majors. Professors like when they’re well-paid. Students can get more in financial aid, and more families typically qualify for need-based aid. When recession arrives, fewer aspects of the college experience there (if any) start being worse.

Money isn’t everything, but when your school has a lot of it, you’re probably not complaining.

Again, as with everything, plenty of schools with endowments under $1 billion are awesome; this is one way families can look at how ‘good’ a school is for their student.

Day 9

Day 9 is for the Colleges That Change Lives!

Arguably, every college changes lives, of course—what makes these colleges special?

They prioritize classroom experience. They cultivate strong communities. Grads of these schools often go on to excellent grad programs, fellowships, and jobs.

I’ve both worked with students and also known people in my peer group who went to many of the CTCL schools—and one of my favorite things about this list is that it, well, isn’t ranked. It’s just a list of schools whose alums feel strongly about the great experience they had there.

A couple other schools I often recommend that are similarly filled with intellectually curious, kind, community-oriented students:

Seattle U: some of the most thoughtful and intentional people I know went there, and some equally thoughtful and intentional students I’ve worked with have applied and attended. Very committed to Jesuit-style social justice if that’s appealing (though if you’re looking for a Latin Mass, the West Coast Jesuits aren’t your Catholics). Excellent food nearby and campus feels very calm with downtown right outside the metaphorical gates.

Syracuse: awesome programs in almost every discipline, big school spirit, beautiful campus, and 10% of the student body comes from NYC—so don’t mistake it for being “super far upstate”. Feels like a big public school but is actually private. Solid Honors option. Next door to SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where Robin Wall Kimmerer teaches.

Occidental: Barack Obama started here. It was designed as the Princeton of the West (colors are orange and black, mascot is the tigers) but has curvy red tile roofs instead of brick and ivy. Awesome classroom experience and grad outcomes while offering less admissions stress. Small, which isn’t for everyone, but is for some!

I could keep going but won’t.

See what you think!

Day 10


In Chicago for a wedding and heard lots of 12 Days of College Rankings festival fireworks tonight. Also, the White Sox were playing, presumably to celebrate.

Here on Day 10, I’m excited to share a sub-subset of universities called the AAU—the Association of American Universities.

I know it sounds kind of fake. It’s not! These are research universities recognized for being extra epic (technical term) at research. Founding members in 1900 were some Ivies (surprise!) along with UC Berkeley (Go Bears), Michigan, and Wisconsin (perhaps actually a surprise).

In case it’s helpful, Notre Dame just got added this year and their President, Father John Jenkins, issued an excited proclamation about the University having received the recognition. So, it’s a legit measure of legitness! Another technical term.

See what you think!

Day 11

I love the word penultimate, and I love Googling "[word] etymology". I'm not sure when I learned that "penultimate" means "second-to-last", but I know that today I learned that it comes from the Latin root "paene" which means "almost"--and that the word "peninsula" means "almost island"--as a Michigander, what??!? As intuitive as it is now that you know, don’t tell me you're not also floored.

Anyway, it's the penultimate day of 12 Days of College Rankings! Meaning, Day 11.

Today, I'd like to focus on the Wall Street Journal's new rankings for this year, which are set up, it seems, to compete with rankings systems like the Princeton Review, US News, and others. They're not bad!

They've got rankings for lots of categories: not only "Top Schools" ( with an accompanying article ( but also other categories.

I'll list some non-Ivy+ schools in the Top 10 for each category.

Parties: TCU, Birmingham-Southern, James Madison, Tulane, W&L, Dayton, Alcorn State

Social Mobility: CSU-LA/Northridge/Fresno/Sacramento, UC Merced, Berea, Baruch, Univ. Illinois-Chicago, FIU

Best Value: Baruch, CSU-LA, UF, CSU-Fullerton, FIU

Salary Impact: Missouri S&T (nice campus! I was there in March), Claremont McKenna, Babson

Career and Learning Opportunities: Rose-Hulman, BYU, W&L, TCU, ND

I appreciate that WSJ was willing to revamp their methodology in a massive way for this year's rankings--they talk in the explanation ( about how they did away with considering surveys on colleges' reputations (popular with US News, THE, QS, and other lists) as well as with per-student instruction dollars spent (also used by other rankings systems).

Instead, they say, "Critically, we now put greater emphasis on measuring the value added by colleges—not simply measuring their students’ success, but focusing on the contribution the college makes to that success."

I am not endorsing any of these lists as "the best" list, but I do think it's worth considering how schools shake out when people's subjective survey opinions are removed. Yes, ultimately, a hiring manager's opinion on a school's/name's reputation does matter, so it's not silly to care about school name recognition in all cases. There are many schools, though, with strong alumni networks and career services where the name/curb appeal isn't quite as flashy; grads from these places still get jobs, too.

WSJ was clearly thoughtful here. They certainly echo the spirit of this made-up 12-day holiday when they say, "What constitutes a good college is almost inevitably subjective and a source of contention. But if you want to prioritize learning environment and career preparation, and choose the college that will do most to make sure you graduate and maximize your earnings, that’s the focus of this ranking." They're trying!


Additionally: I saw journalist Soledad O’Brien speak at a NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) conference in Seattle a couple years ago, and she said that when she hires student interns, she prefers to hire CUNY students, who have a rare ability to hustle and get things done, over students from other schools in NYC.

Similarly, here in Silicon Valley, a parent who also served in a role with a good amount of influence at a tech company once shared that they prefer hiring Santa Clara grads (rather than students from other, more selective local schools) because of their on-the-ground abilities and attributes.


My point here is similar to the one I make to students about activities and labels (I say “content>title”, aka maybe don’t focus solely on an officer title, and instead focus on what it is you’ve actually done/are doing/will do that a) you actually care about and b) has real, positive impact). Plenty of students get a club officer title and don’t do much with it (no shame; they’re probably busy and stressed and trying their best—my point is a title isn’t much help in admissions if you don’t have genuine care and substantive action to back it up).

As for activities, with resumes and interviews, too, What You Can Actually Do matters a good amount. In other words, employability depends a good deal on the student’s on-the-ground skills and attributes, and not entirely on the name of their alma mater.

Day 12

It's the 12th day of 12 Days of College Rankings! Woohoo.

Here on the final day, an extended analogy for you.

It's Common App Essay season, in which students talk about formative experiences that have impacted them and how they see the world.

I've studied a few world languages over the years, and I've noticed that this has had an impact on my own worldview. Among other lenses informed by my experiences, one way I tend to see things is through the lens of language, translation, and fluency.

Not only are Spanish and Xhosa and R and Python and C++ all languages, but there are languages of candor ("how [in]directly do you prefer to communicate?") and emotion ("how okay is it to express my feelings in this environment?") and connection ("let's bond by talking about sports or music or _____") and others.

What I'm getting to is, big surprise, that everyone assesses a school's "quality" differently. Just today, in a meeting with a student and their family, we talked about different definitions of "success" that might exist--even within the same household--as relates to the college process. Communicating on this--translating across languages of success and quality--is crucial when a family is looking to define what “best” means.

One resource/dictionary/translation tool that worked for me personally when I applied to colleges 45 years ago was the Princeton Review's collection of fun college lists, which focus on a bunch of different themes.

Had I known the word "vibe" at the time, I would've probably avoided using it for fear of being judged, but it would've applied. These Princeton Review category lists, along with the Fiske Guide, YouTube and (apparently now) TikTok, convey a school's vibe, character, culture; ethos.

To be clear, the link below isn’t intended to send you to Princeton Review's "best colleges" list--I'm referring to "College Ranking Lists by Category" about a third of the way down the page. It's a Choose Your Own Adventure of college rankings, based on opinion surveys of students on each campus (an average of 424 students per school!).

The names used to be funnier ("Clove-Smoking, Tree-Hugging, Birkenstock-Wearing Vegetarians" was sanded down to "Most Liberal Students") but the spirit of these lists is the same as when I was a wee lad. They seem to say, you don't have to care about all of this, but for what you do care about, there's probably something here for you. We speak your language, or at least try to.

If I've learned anything during these 12 days of 12DoCR, it's that it's better not to commit to a LinkedIn post series right before midterms week. Or maybe ever again. I also learned even more about rankings methodology, and clarified how much I don't yet know about statistics. Time to go keep learning R, I guess. Thanks for reading!

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