The fall semester or quarter is upon us at colleges across the country. So is college rankings season. College-bound students and their families want to know which colleges are hot and which might not be. No doubt the discussions about college rankings will push the servers at College Confidential, as well as other review sites, to maximum traffic.

Whether you visit here often or you have stumbled upon for the first time, I want to leave you with an important piece of advice. College rankings are what they are, college rankings.

What does this mean?

It means that college rankings are anything that the person or publication who makes the college rankings wants them to be.

Suppose I wanted to make a ranking of the best large universities that balance football with academics. It’s possible, because the relevant statistics are available. In order to make this ranking, we would need to know:

  • The freshman retention rate for each school;
  • The four-year graduation rate for each school;
  • The four-year graduation rate for the football players vs. the other students, athletes or not, who entered college with them; and,
  • The attendance for home football games vs. the capacity of the stadium.

All of these statistics are available, though you will need someone to explain how the NCAA calculates the Academic Performance Rating. It would be nice to know the percentage of seats in the student section that were filled of each game. But that data is very hard to collect. Some schools charge students nothing for their seats, others ask them to buy tickets. Price and the team’s record have an impact on attendance.

You might notice that I did not include the record of the football team. This is because I am more interested in knowing about the fans loyalty to the program, regardless of how well the team is playing. For example, Ohio State in the year prior to hiring Urban Meyer as head coach nearly filled a 100,000-seat stadium for every home game, although the team went 6-7, losing their bowl game. So did Penn State during the 2012 season, their first under the more rigid NCAA sanctions.

I won’t go through the full exercise of making a ranking.┬áBut I have some idea of how the top ten would look.

  1. Notre Dame
  2. University of Southern California
  3. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  4. UCLA
  5. Penn State-University Park
  6. The Ohio State University
  7. University of Wisconsin-Madison
  8. University of Florida
  9. University of Georgia
  10. Texas A&M University

You’re welcome to come up with your own ranking, if you like.

These are all schools where the football team has consistently won over the last ten years and has a very large fan base, not limited to those who sit in the large capacity football stadium. All of these schools also retain more than 90 percent of their freshman class, and graduate at least half of a class within four years. A bright student who wanted to go to a large school would succeed at any one of them.

But this ranking, even if each factor was given equal weight, favors schools with larger football stadiums as well as success on the field. Stanford and Duke, as two examples of “academic” schools that also play football at a high level, do not appear on this list because of attendance at the games. Their fans will not turn out, win or lose, rain or shine, the way that fans of these other teams will.

Which is the whole point with college rankings. They are whatever you want to rank. The best school is whatever school tops your ranking based on whatever your rank.


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