A DIY Guide to College Rankings

Who needs U.S. News when you can create your own college rankings with free college data and a little bit of elbow grease?

One mom tells us how she created a system of custom college rankings for her son:

Creating your own college rankings isn't as impossible as it seems. Thanks to the web, you can easily find a variety of sources of data and spreadsheets to simplify things. As part of the college search for my son, we created a ranking system to use as a guide to decide which colleges he should apply to. It wasn't perfect, but it was very useful.

Where to began

We started with a list of over 2,000 schools I downloaded from Collegeresults.org.. You can also download them from the Integrated Post-secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) one of the sources of Noodle's college data.

Creating the college list

Based on the variables available, I created a "must have" list. The school had to have a 50 percent or better four-year graduation rate and at least 700 or more full-time undergraduate students. These two criteria alone left us with just around 400 schools.

Then, I eliminated another 150 schools based on the following:

  • Specialty schools

  • Single-sex schools (<10 percent of one gender)

  • High percentage of graduates in business, health-related fields, or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

  • Large schools (>4000)

  • Schools without baseball programs

  • Schools with a high percentage of non-traditional students

During this process, it was important to keep in mind a few model schools we wanted on the list because the cut-offs for some of these variables was arbitrary.

In my son's case, Trinity University and Austin College were two schools that needed to stay on the list. This meant that we couldn't just select schools classified as Bachelor of Arts and Science since Trinity is considered a Master-level school.

And I moved the percentage of business degrees to 30 percent when I saw that 40 percent eliminated the University of Richmond.

150 seems like a lot of schools but depending on how you rank the different variables, your top 20 schools can change dramatically.

Sorting schools on the college list

At this point, I started just sorting the schools by different variables. I looked to see which schools were on top if I used acceptance rates versus 75th percentile test scores. At the time, I was not familiar with the sorting/filtering features in the Excel table format which makes the process very easy.

In Excel you could select all schools that have a minimum 75th percentile score and then sort them by graduation rates. Trying different combinations gives you a feel for how the schools differ and which variables are important to you.

What to do about difficult-to-find data

At some point, you are going to have to find information not already collected and organized.

In our case, we needed to know about the history departments because my son was planning to major in history. Since we were targeting small colleges, we knew that there may be only four or five faculty in the history department. We needed to know that the department would offer classes he was interested in.

Looking at the course work and overlooked data of each college

This was the time consuming part. I went to 145 college websites and looked up their course schedules.

The requirement was that the school had to offer at least two classes each semester my son would be willing to take. This became a minimum requirement for us. I then ranked the department and selection of classes on a scale of one to three with one being the minimally acceptable.

Inevitably, I ended up with pluses and minuses and even 0.5's. Don't ask me the difference between a 2+ and a 2.5, I really couldn't tell you. When I created the rankings, a 1 minus got -0.5; 1 a 0' 1 + or 1.5; 1; and anything 2 and over got a 2.

We ended up including the following categories in the rankings:

  • Not an NCAA division three school: -1 (son probably wasn't good enough to play baseball at the Division 1 or 2 level)

  • Percentage of full-time faculty less than 60 percent: -1 (full-time faculty make advising and letters of recommendation easier)

  • Accepts CLEP exams: +0.5 (as we progressed through the application process, this wasn't as important to us). The CLEP is a group of [standardized tests][8] that assess college level knowledge. Many schools grant college credits to students who meet a particular score requirement.

  • Percentage of graduates attending grad school is greater than 30 percent: +1 (this was important for future plans, and we thought would reflect the students' attitudes towards academics)

  • Percentage of graduates attending non-professional graduate schools greater than 20 percent: +1 (son wasn't looking to attend medical or law school)

  • Percentage of graduates attending non-professional graduate schools greater than 40 percent: +0.5 (you can see we thought this was an important factor)

  • Percentage of undergraduates living on campus less than 70 percent: -1 (son was interested in a traditional, residential school)

  • Percentage of students joining Greek organizations greater than 30 percent: -1 (we didn't think a high percentage would lead to the type of campus culture son would like)

  • Offered ancient or mediterranean studies: +1 (this is the main history interest for my son)

  • Percentage of degrees in business greater than 30 percent: -1 (this gets back to wanting a strong liberal arts experience at a small school)**

  • No formal classics majors: -0.5 (many of the classes son is interested in are usually taught by classics faculty)

  • Offers a January Term: +0.5 (this seems like a very good way to study abroad or try different things without committing an entire semester)

Sorting the list of college rankings

We weren't using acceptance rates for rankings but they were obviously something we had to be aware of. So for all the schools that had better than a history department ranking of one, I color coded the schools as follows:

The following table shows the ranking of our acceptable school list.

So how useful was the ranking I created?

Well, it didn't create an automatic top 10 schools to apply to. You have to remember the role baseball was playing in all of this. This allowed us to pick which baseball camps to attend the summer before his senior year. If the camp didn't listed any coaches from schools our acceptable list, there was no point in going.

You'll notice two schools he applied to weren't color coded at all, meaning they had only a one for their history department. However, each had a version of a great books program that really interested my son.

Four of the schools he applied to were from the top part of his list. The other six either had very strong history departments, special programs, or had significant baseball prospects.

For us, just going through the process was at least as important as the final results. Ultimately, knowing that there were 145 acceptable schools and 65 of those had a better than just "acceptable" history department significantly reduced the stress level. We went from worrying if we he would get into the right school to being excited about exploring all the possibilities available.

Visit Michelle's blog to learn more about making your own college rankings!