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The Importance of Rankings Lists in the Student Journey

7 min read

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Thaís Roberto
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University rankings have long been the go-to source for anyone interested in a trustworthy, quantifiable list of the best higher education institutions, and students have used them as deciding factors as much as universities have used them for self-promotion. But, recently, research has shown that rankings have decreased in importance compared to other criteria considered by students seeking their next school.
Here, we will look at what current and future students prioritize over university ranks and their reasons.
The ranking reliability
Ranking highly on a reputable list is a reason for great pride for any university. Every year, schools display ranking results across websites, billboards, and ad campaigns to attract students worldwide. A favorable ranking spot does wonders for a university’s brand and visibility - the Times Higher Education rankings alone are viewed by more than 30 million people every year.
Popular ranking organizations, such as Quacquarelli Symonds and Times Higher Education, look at factors like academic reputation, international outlook, citations, and faculty-student ratio, providing a good overview of a university’s general strength. Still, as important as academic accomplishment is, those aren’t the only factors weighing on a student’s final decision. 

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Attending a high-ranked college can give students and families the assurance of receiving an education from an institution well-respected among peers. However, every ranking has its limitations and downsides, and students have learned where to look to get information on other crucial aspects of choosing their next school.
Student’s new priorities
Keystone’s annual State of Student Recruitment Report surveyed over 20,000 students from over 195 countries and found the top three reasons students choose to study abroad are:
  • achieving their career goals
  • personal development
  • experiencing a new culture and lifestyle.
Attending a top-ranked university falls in sixth place. 
When choosing their destination school, the main factors considered are the overall quality of education, scholarship opportunities, and general reputation, with the institution’s ranking coming in eighth place.
It can be argued that reputation and ranking seem similar, but a school’s reputation encompasses aspects that rankings don’t usually assess: student satisfaction, social life, and student support are only a few details that many students take into account.
A significant element considered by students of all levels is affordability. Tuition, cost of life, funding, and scholarship opportunities appear above both ranking and reputation when looking at the main concerns for Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. students.
Studying away from home is as much an investment as it is a risk, and financial security can be the make-or-break factor when a student is deciding what school will provide the best overall return.
The downsides of the rankings
Because college campuses are rich in different areas of study, faculty, students, and staff, even the most comprehensive rankings can’t evaluate everything surrounding a university
Within a single institution, there can be a great chasm between departments. The same university can be a world leader in biochemistry research while having an undistinguished history department. While general rankings can hardly capture the complexity of each school, specialized rankings are an excellent alternative to help promote individual faculties.
In addition to a limited evaluation, students often associate high rankings with lower acceptance rates, higher tuition costs, and more demanding programs. As renowned as a university may be, these factors may discourage students from applying, as they may feel that their investment won’t pan out as they hope.
Tipping the scale in your favor
Students - especially international students - tend to gravitate to schools that provoke a sense of “fitting in” from the start - academically, financially, and culturally. They seek assurance that their application will be successful and that they will fit in on campus, so college rankings fall back compared to other priorities.
Offering one-on-one chats with program directors or faculty is a simple way to establish a personal connection with students and gain their trust. Students can ask the university about their doubts regarding the program, school, and funding and hear what the university expects from students. 
By offering substantial funding and scholarship opportunities, showcasing campus life with authenticity, and increasing staff and faculty availability, students will be naturally drawn to your university. The more information your university has readily available to students - whether on the school’s website or through direct contact with staff - the more your reputation as a reliable institution will grow. 
Painting the whole picture
Rankings haven’t lost value, but they only matter to a certain point. Students have easier access to more information each year, meaning rankings are no longer the only way to gauge an institution’s reputation.
“I wish I knew that picking a university was about more than just school, i.e., a place to pursue my academics,” says University of Waterloo student Zahra. “Only after coming to university did I realize this decision influenced many opportunities that would be available to me, such as where I could travel/go, sport or athletic facilities I could use, people I would meet, clubs I could join, and I could keep going on and on.”
Zahra’s testimony is proof that applicants are concerned with every aspect of their experience on campus - from the quality of classes to extracurricular activities and cultural fit - and prospective students will be looking at every side of the university before making their decision.
Rounding out your university’s promotion and offering real incentives for domestic and international students has become indispensable to keeping up with future students’ demands throughout their decision process.
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