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Ididio Explains
Making a top school list that is right for you
Top school lists are published by many organizations, and these lists do contain what are objectively the best schools in the country. Unfortunately, for most students they don’t represent realistic school options. We provide the tools and information for you to build a school list that best fits your needs and abilities.

When you’re beginning your search for colleges, you will encounter many “top lists” of schools. They’re a popular format and appear to give an idea of what schools you should consider. However, we don’t agree that they are all that useful. In most cases, they represent the very best of the best and the most exclusive schools, and for the vast majority of prospective students, those are simply not realistic choices.

To investigate this question, we took a look at a few different “top lists” of colleges (US News and World Report National Schools, Forbes, Wall Street Journal) and focused on the top 50 colleges in each of those lists. (Let’s be honest – just like you don’t ever look at the second page of Google searches, are you really going to scroll past more than 50 schools?) Using those results, we found a few key numbers.

Percentage of all colleges on any of the lists we analyzed

First of all, the number of schools in these lists’ top 50 is a tiny percentage of all possible schools. The reality is that these lists are not representative of the actual available schools and their students represent only a tenth of the total students starting college in any given year.

Percentage of all new college students enrolling in a school on the lists’ top 50

Nearly 90% of the students going to college will be going to a school not near the top of those lists, and that’s largely because the lists don’t represent the majority of colleges as a whole.

Although the different sites making these lists may use different metrics to determine their top schools, the truth is that most of the good schools do everything well. A school like Harvard is going to show up in every list because it does well in virtually every possible metric related to determining a good school – but getting accepted there is certainly not possible for everyone.

Percentage of listed schools on more than one list

So, when these lists share 52% of the schools they define as “top,” they aren’t really giving you any idea of what would be a good and attainable school for you.

In reality, a great many schools are at levels similar to these lists’ top 50 schools, but they don’t make it into the top 50 because they don’t fit that list’s specific criteria. If you only look at the top schools, you’ll never see these other options, but they’re just as good and are much more attainable for the average student.

For example, this chart shows bachelor’s-focused schools that have at an 80% graduation rate, along with a few other measures of success.

Orange lines indicate the 74 ranked schools.
Green lines are 158 additional schools with similar outcomes.
Graduation rateLoan default rateMedian debtStudent faculty ratio70%80%90%100%0%1%2%3%4%5%$5,000$10,000$15,000$20,000$25,000$30,00051015202530
2018 IPEDS

The lines in red are all in the top 50 of the lists previously mentioned – US News and World Report National Schools, Forbes Top Colleges, and Wall Street Journal Top US Colleges. The grey lines are schools not in the top 50 of one of those lists.

Creating a useful list

To this end, we’ve created a way with our school explorer to search for schools that allows you to determine what’s most important to you, and make a top list that is tailored to your own criteria.

When first starting to explore schools, you’ll see a list like this. Do any of those schools look familiar?

The top 10 schools based solely on the success metrics in the previous chart

As in other lists, these are the best schools overall, but they are likely not the best school for you. So let’s fix that.

What if you knew that you wanted to major in something specific, let’s say computer graphics? After filtering for that, the top 10 schools look like this:

The top 10 schools that offer “Computer Graphics” as a program

From there, you know that you want to live on campus, and ensure that there will be plenty of other students living on campus with you. Using the “customize your list” button, you can choose to mark that as being important to you, and then the list changes again:

On campus housing prioritized

Now you have a list of schools that closely fit your most important qualities in a school. This is certainly not the end of what you can do by adding and removing other filters. The “My Match” score will continually update as you make changes, and by default the list will sort by that score. As a result, you will always see the schools at the top of the list that will best fit you.

The top 10 schools that offer your major prioritized by offering non-need based aid and on campus housing

In this chart, we go even further. We add non-need-based aid as a metric, which indicates the amount of scholarship money the school is providing (this generally means they are offering you money to attend, and therefore want you as a student). This leaves you with a list of the schools that best fit what you want from a school, ordered with the best at the top. With our site, you have the ability to make a customized “Top 10” list of schools for yourself at any time!

Explore school selectivity
Use the selection to restrict the schools to specific classifications and the US cartogram to filter by state.
Selecting a school will take you to the detailed school page.
Restrict the types of schools to these
Restrict the schools to these states
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The scatter chart and table includes schools where 60% or more of their undergraduate awards are at the bachelor level, and they provided the information necessary to compute our selectivity rating.
Ididio calculates a selectivity rating using the relative performance of each college or university’s students’ SAT/ACS scores and/or high school grade point averages along with the percentage of applicants who are accepted for admission. A selectivity rating of 0 corresponds to open admission institutions. The data that informs our choices is from IPEDs, Peterson’s Databases copyright 2018 Peterson’s All rights reserved, and Common Data Set. Schools to the left are not selective, and schools to the right have rigorous admissions standards.
We averaged any of the percentiles available (some schools do not report on all of these measures) with the percentage of rejected applications to arrive at a selectivity rating.
The eight-year graduation rate is taken from the outcomes data reported in the2017 IPEDS data, and applies to all students seeking an undergraduate degree. Although standings could change for individual schools, the overall trend we see here is preserved if we only consider first-time full-time freshmen and/or six- or four-year graduation rates.
The federal loan repayment rate is from College Scorecard. This and the three-year default rate are available in our school explorer. The three-year rate is more sensitive to recent changes in quality and would result in a similar analysis.
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