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Do you know what the world’s best college is?

Is the best college Harvard? Stanford? MIT?

In fact, the answer lies in reframing the question: the best college for what?!?

Is it a school that very few students are able to get into? Or a school that many fail out of?

As a senior in high school, you may not have taken a course in statistics yet. As soon as you do, though, one of the most important lessons you’ll learn is to be wary of numbers. All ranking systems are based on certain criteria, and while that criteria may make a lot of sense to whoever created the system, it might not be very useful when it comes to your personal school selection.

As an example, let’s look at the 2017 U.S. News Best College rankings. This list marks Princeton University as #1, followed by Harvard, University of Chicago, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, MIT and Duke.

But what is a “best college”?

You might be surprised to learn that student selectivity only accounts for 12.5% of what goes into the U.S. News rankings (with the acceptance rate counting about 2% and SAT/ACT scores accounting for about 8%). In contrast, financial resources count for 10% and the alumni giving rate counts for 5%. Thus, the amount of money that a school receives is considered to be a more important factor in creating a “best school” than how difficult it is to get into!

Arguably, factors like the alumni giving rate are indirect measures of student happiness and graduate success in the workplace. But it could also mean that these schools have a tendency to accept wealthy students and court politicians. That may or may not be what you’re looking for in a college.

Another factor that goes into the calculation is graduation and retention rates. To rise in the rankings, colleges are encouraged to keep students from failing out or transferring. Therefore, the “best” colleges are not necessarily the more difficult ones. In fact, Princeton has one of the highest graduation rates in the country!

Rather than taking the U.S. News’ word for it (or for that matter, the word of any published college ranking), ask yourself what makes a best college for you.

Look at rankings that focus on specific qualities, instead of grouping together multiple factors.

For example, if your goal is to study abroad in Latin America, then the best U.S. colleges might be Goucher College and Soka University of America, where 100% of students study abroad.

If your goal is to make a lot of money after graduation, then the best U.S. college might be Harvey Mudd, where graduates are “earning mid-career median salaries of $133,000,” according to Forbes.

Even these numbers, though, can be a bit deceiving. Harvey Mudd can claim high salaries for its graduates because so many of them go into STEM fields. If your goal is to be a French teacher, then don’t expect to make $133,000 — no matter what university you graduate from. Likewise, just because Goucher will send you abroad doesn’t mean that they have a good program where you want to go. If you’ve got a specific country in mind, you’ll need to do your research to find the right university.

So how do you discover the best college?

Make a list of the top 3 things you hope to get out of your education.
Then, do your research. Find the university that can make your goals become reality.

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