5 Reason to Use The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings…and 4 Things to Watch Out For

Female student using New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings tool on a laptopShould you use The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings? Let’s face it, just because it’s from The New York Times, people are going to look, right? Which I did. I have to admit that I was pleased with several aspects of their rankings which incorporate some elements that I have long been advocating. But I’m not going to retire my DIYCollegeRankings spreadsheets just yet. While the Build Your Own College Rankings gets some things right, there are other areas that definitely need improvement.

5 Reasons to use The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings

Here are five reasons why you should at least try the rankings. Ultimately, it may not work for you but I think it will help broaden the family’s understanding of the college admissions options.

1. The Build Your Own College Rankings is free, kinda

As long as you haven’t used up your free allotment of New York Times articles for the month. So probably not a good option for a counselor. But for students just starting their search, why not? Take the time to see how many different ways you can rank colleges without having the usual suspects showing up on top. Or better yet, see if you can create a rankings that is a close match to those of US News Best College Rankings. Hint: you’ve got to start by maxing out the Academic slider but don’t max out the Higher Earning slider. Just remember to do it all in one setting or you’ll use up your articles.

2. The tool allows you to decide which factors to emphasize

This has always been my biggest pet peeve with most rankings, especially US News. Why not let users decide which factors to include in the rankings? How do the colleges rank if you take out the expert opinion of presidents, provosts and deans of admissions of a college’s academic reputation.  I suspect US News will never let us know. However, with The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings tool, you can be as shallow or as socially conscious as you choose. Go ahead and only use the Party scene and High Earnings sliders or just the Economic Mobility and Racially Diverse sliders if you choose. Let’s face it, most people are somewhere in between and it’s nice that users can adjust them according to their own preferences.

3. Provides context

The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings offers something rarely, if ever seen on other college search websites, context for the numbers it shows on the individual school profiles. Not for all of them but for enough for users to have some idea how the school compares to other schools in general. The individual college profile shows where the school ranks on a bar graph compared to other schools in the rankings. It can give you some idea if the Alumni Earnings are high are just above average. Same for Sticker and Net Price. You can also see just how far towards one end of the scale a school might be in terms of Economic diversity, Party Scene, Athletics or Economic mobility. In other words, it lets users know the context of the number, is it high, low or what?

4. The Build Your Own College Rankings definitely focuses on finances

Yes! The principle number used to compare college costs is the Total Cost of Attendance. That includes tuition, fees, and housing. So often what you see listed is just the tuition which is convenient for the colleges since it will make it look between $10,000 to $15,000 cheaper. Furthermore, The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings tool provides a quick overview about why you should pay attention to average net price although you do have to go to the How ‘Build Your Own College Rankings’ Was Built page. Regardless, this might actually be a first for a major website showing college rankings.

5. Tool location

Not the college’s locations, the Build Your Own College Rankings tool location. It’s on the Opinion page. That’s a subtle (or maybe not) reminder that how colleges should be ranked is a matter of opinion. What’s a must-have in a college for one student can be irrelevant for another. Basically, individuals should control the rankings based on their preferences rather than have US News dictate what their preferences should be.

4 Concerns about The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings

So what should users be concerned about when using the Build Your Own College Rankings? Well, let’s get my hobby horse out of the way to begin with. (You can prepare yourself by reading Why YOU Should Care About College Graduation Rates.)

1. Graduation Rates

Oh where to start? Let’s start with how The New York Times used graduation rates to select schools to include for the rankings. They used the 8-year rate! Even the media generally uses the 6-year graduation rate. It could have something to do with their decision to only include colleges with a 50% or better graduation rate. I don’t understand why they didn’t just use the 6-year rate; I doubt there would be much of a difference. Of course, I can’t say for certain since I don’t even bother to download the 8-year rate for my spreadsheet so I can’t compare the results. But I know I get over 900 colleges with the 6-year rate, which I don’t recommend using. I’m just wondering what school is left out using the 6-year rate but is included with the 8-year rate.

Then there’s their rationale for the 50% cut-off for inclusion on the list. Quoctrung Bui explains “But we believe this is an important criterion for inclusion, given how serious a problem the college dropout rate is in America.” Seriously? Then why use the 8-year graduation rate? If I exclude more or less the same colleges at The New York Times and select only schools with a 6-year graduation rate of 50% or better, I get 959 institutions. Of those schools, at least 392 schools had 4-year graduation rates less than 50%. Almost 200 of them were under 40% and 56 of them were under 30%. Yet, declaring that they have a minimum rate of 50% makes it sound like these schools are all on some even footing when it comes to graduation rates. They’re not.

But I suspect the people at The New York Times realize that most people don’t care which probably explains why the graduation rate, 8-years or otherwise, isn’t listed on the college profile. They will go through the trouble of showing the average net price and yet leave off the actual graduation rate even though they said it’s so important.

Click HERE to download list of colleges that accept at least 50% of students and have at least a 50% graduation rate.

2. Academic profile

Their academic profile is dubious at best. According to their methodology, “The academic profile score is an even mix of standardized test scores (SAT and ACT), graduation rates and student-faculty ratio.” With the number of schools going test optional, the reported test scores are almost meaningless. There’s also a big difference between schools such as public institutions in Florida that require all students to submit their scores and institutions in other states where less than 10% of students submit scores. I suppose including the Student-Faculty Ratio was one way to make sure the school popular with their readers would remain at the high end of the scale.

Furthermore, the profile is pretty much useless in terms of matching the student’s academic qualifications with those of the freshman class. That’s because they aren’t actually listing the percentage of tests being submitted on the individual college profile. And they list the ACT Math and ACT English scores instead of the more generally used ACT Composite. I really don’t understand the value of this factor at all.

3. Filter categories

Why don’t filters or search categories allow you to select a minimum and maximum number of something? Instead, we get three possible categories for size and another three for acceptance rates. And two of the acceptance rates categories overlap. But I think one of the categories goes a long way to show who their primary audience is, the one acceptance category with no overlap is less than 25%.

4. Can’t compare colleges

There isn’t any way to compare one college directly with another. I know, after I compliment The New York Times on providing context for the numbers, why am I complaining about not being able to compare one college to another? Because ultimately, that’s what students and their families will want to do, compare a limited number of colleges with each other on specific factors. The numerical rankings won’t be enough. They will want to decide the values of the trade-offs for each school and who will want to keep adjusting their priorities to come up with different rankings?

Then there is the problem of not having any way to download the results of your rankings. Not the listing of the schools with their rank or the individual schools with their raw scores used for calculation. Maybe that will come with the subscription option. (You can compare over 1,500 colleges on over 200 columns of data in the DIYCollegeRankings College Search Spreadsheet. )


I applaud The New York Times for developing a college rankings tool that allows students and families to rank colleges on elements that are important to them. However, given the inability to do a basic comparison of colleges selected by the user gives the tool more of a novelty app feel, but with slick graphics. Think about it this way, you can rank your schools by party scene-great! Now what? Wouldn’t most people want to compare the schools on things like High Earnings and Low net price to decide what the trade-offs are? I suppose you could continually adjust the different parameters to incorporate them into the rankings but that seems a lot of work for something that you can’t export or use in any way other than how it appears on the screen. I can’t help but feel this is a sort of trial balloon for The New York Times to see if they want to develop a paid app to go up against US News Best College Rankings.

5 Reason to Use The New York Times Build Your Own College Rankings...and 4 Things to Watch Out For

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