This is the time of year when college rankings proliferate to capture the attention of a new crop of high-school seniors searching for the right campus. In recent months, I’ve written about two fairly new entrants to the rankings game that are worth checking out for their unique methodology, Money magazine and LinkedIn.
Now another set of rankings has arrived this month that approaches the question of where to go to college based on the choices real students make: which institutions do students pick when they have been accepted to more than one institution?
These rankings come from Parchment, which processes transcripts for high-school students applying to college. It analyzed more than 150,000 admissions acceptances that some 86,000 seniors from the Class of 2015 received from 700 colleges and universities. The company then assigned points to institutions based on the decisions students made when they had a choice among multiple colleges.
The schools that rose to the top of Parchment’s list are some of the usual suspects that come out first in all the rankings: Stanford, MIT, and Yale. But several of the names on Parchment’s list might surprise you, especially when you see the so-called peer schools students were often choosing from.
For instance, the top-ranked liberal-arts college in the U.S. News & World Report rankings — Williams College — ranked 21st in the Parchment rankings below Swarthmore (11th), Pomona (12th), and Bowdoin (13th). One university that cracks the top 10 in the Parchment rankings doesn’t even make it into the U.S. News rankings because it’s in Canada: the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
Waterloo is a university you may never have heard of, but if you talk to anyone in Silicon Valley they’ll probably tell you the university is a source of some of the best employees and entrepreneurs. The president of Y Combinator, one of the most influential backers of new tech companies, traces the roots of eight successful startups to Waterloo.
Waterloo operates the largest co-op education program in the world, meaning almost half of its 30,000 students alternate between four-month periods on campus and in the workplace. Because of co-ops, Waterloo students are accustomed to toggling between long stretches in the classroom and the work world while constantly refining and reflecting on what they learned in both places.
One benefit of the Parchment rankings is that they reveal schools like Waterloo that might not otherwise land on the list of a prospective student focused solely on the prestige factor of U.S. News.
The Parchment rankings also show that deciding where to go to college is not the rational process that it’s often made out to be. Three quarters of high-school students submit three or more applications, and often they are applying to a mix of institutions, including small liberal-arts colleges and big state universities. Where those students end up enrolling is usually not based on whether one university ranks a few spots higher than another on the U.S. News list. It’s based much more on cost, location, and academic programs.
Like other rankings, the Parchment list has its limitations. For one, Parchment’s services are more popular in some states than others, so its sample is not nationally representative.
The rankings are a tool to use in the admissions process that provide valuable information to consider when making a decision. But the final choice for most students and their families is based on personal fit and financial circumstances, not on where others before you have gone.
Parchment Rankings, 2016
1. Stanford University
2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
3. Harvey Mudd College
4. Duke University
5. Yale University
6. United States Military Academy
7. University of Pennsylvania
8. University of Chicago
9. United States Naval Academy
10. University of Waterloo
11. Swarthmore College
12. Pomona College
13. Bowdoin College
14. Cal Tech
15. Brown University
16. University of Toronto
17. Princeton University
18. University of Notre Dame
19. University of California, Berkeley
20. McGill University
21. Williams College
22. University of California, Los Angeles
23. Columbia University
24. Barnard College
25. Haverford College