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Don't just rely on college rankings - here are more tools for your search

Posted by Leslie Anderson  September 25, 2013 04:58 PM

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There’s the US News & World Report list that this year ranked Princeton as the country’s best university. There’s the Forbes list that put Stanford at the top.

There are lists that rank the best colleges in New England, the best in the Ivy League, the best small colleges, the best state universities, the colleges with the smartest students, “hidden gems,” the best party schools.

Even President Obama has gotten into the act, calling for a college “report card” that would make affordability part of the equation.

With the barrage of information that high schools seniors face, how helpful are all these annual ratings?

“Not very,” said Patrick Manning, coordinator of the post-secondary planning office at Hingham High School. “Quite honestly, I’d stay away from putting too much importance on those rankings. A school might have the best ranking in the world, but if it’s not a good fit for you, it doesn’t matter.”

Manning and others who work with students applying to colleges say that while the rankings might make for interesting debate, the goal for seniors shouldn’t be simply going to the highest-ranked school that accepts them.

“Everyone knows the top 25,” Manning said, “but there are 3,000 schools in the United States, and if you go to one that’s not on the list but it’s a good fit for you, that’s OK.”

Manjula Karamcheti, director of guidance, testing, and academic support at Malden High School, agreed that most ranking lists aren’t generally helpful, but thinks Obama’s plan may get colleges thinking more about costs.

The president wants federal funding for public and private colleges tied to a rating system that would measure tuition increases, graduation rates, student debt, and even graduates’ earnings to help students pick schools with the best value.

“In our community we spend a huge amount of time getting kids to take a look at how much a college will actually cost,” Karamcheti said. “We ask students to find out how much aid a college gives, merit scholarships, job placements after graduation, things like that.”

She said that for many students, a college not only needs to fit academically and socially, but also financially.

The rankings proposed by the president “might make colleges do some reflective thinking about the costs of tuition, of books, of the money available for financial aid, and that might be helpful down the road,” she said.

Even the best rating system, however, cannot consider all the factors — and the many intangibles — that make for a successful college experience.

“Rankings are easy,” said Elizabeth Heaton, an admissions specialist at the College Coach office in Watertown. “But you’re allowing someone else’s judgments to make your decision.”

College Coach falls under the umbrella of Bright Horizons Family Solutions LLC, and Heaton works with families independently and through their workplace as part of some companies’ benefits packages.

She compared the process of selecting a college to buying a house, and wondered what factors are being considered by the people compiling the rankings: “Are they looking only at the finishes in the kitchen? Or are they looking at the plumbing and electrical systems too?”

Heaton encourages parents and students to spend time looking at the student’s strengths and weaknesses and what motivates them.

Then, rather than referring to a list of “top colleges” to decide where they could succeed over the next four years, students should think realistically about how far away from home they want to go, what kind of community they want to be in, and what is important to them.

“If you are someone who loves to ski, going to school in Florida is probably not a wise choice,” she said.

And as trivial as it might seem, going to a school in a picturesque but rural setting might not be the best place for someone who enjoys a variety of ethnic foods, she said.

“If you love Thai food and eat it every week and that’s something that you’d really miss, you should probably make sure there are restaurants near campus,” Heaton said.

While ranking lists may not be the best way to find the appropriate college fit, there are websites and books available to help sort out the choices.

The CollegeWeekLive site is a Needham-based operation that provides an assortment of live and taped video presentations by experts in subjects ranging from financial aid to picking a test strategy to finding the right school, and has 300 colleges and universities participating in its programs.

The free site also provides students with an opportunity to chat by video or text with students and admissions representatives at particular schools, and to get specific questions about courses and majors answered directly.

“It gives students a chance to browse colleges and ask, ‘Are you a good fit for me? Am I good fit for you?’” said Erin Warren, chief marketing officer at CollegeWeekLive, which started in 2007. “It also provides a great way to figure out whether you should schedule a visit.”

CollegeWeekLive also holds themed events. Big Ten Day, for example, focuses on representatives from the schools in the Big Ten Conference, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Penn State.

Special events are also geared for students interested in attending a service academy such as West Point or Annapolis, California state schools, or a college abroad, an option that Warren said is gaining in popularity.

Naviance is used by most area school systems to help students find colleges that may be a match for their type of academic record.

On this website, students are able to plug in their grade point average and other information, and get a list of schools where students with their type of transcript have been accepted in the past.

Heaton said she often suggests students take a look at Peterson’s College Guide, available online at www.petersons.com and in book form.

The guide, written by students, is “relatively judgment free,” she said.

She also recommends the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which she calls a perennial favorite, although it is limited to about 350 colleges and universities.

Manning, at Hingham High, suggests Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges for students who have an idea about what they might want to study, or a particular career. He said it can help students see what majors are most compatible with the field they want to enter, and which schools offer the best programs for that course of study.

He said the Princeton Review, online at www.princetonreview.com, can be a good starting point to finding the right school.

Manning also suggests students ask colleges and universities for lists of local alumni they could talk with, and check around the community to find graduates from their high school who are attending institutions they are considering.

Kenneth Friedman, an 18-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshman, has come up with an iPhone app to help keep it all straight from start to finish.

Called the College Application Organizer, his app launched last month and is available for $3.99 through iTunes.

Friedman, who graduated from high school in central New York, said his biggest problem during the application process was keeping track of all the information required to apply to 12 schools.

“It was painful,” he said. “So I wanted to come up with something that would help other people.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com. For more tips and perspectives on preparing for college go to boston.com/collegebound.

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College Bound offers news and advice on preparing, applying, and ultimately heading off to college. Send your ideas and questions to Leslie.Anderson@globe.com. More »
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