The annual rankings of the "best" colleges in the world are rolling out, which many students use as a starting point for selecting colleges.
"Rankings are surely more important to internationals than domestic students because college rankings were the main sources for us to decide where to apply," said Lanca Li, a recent graduate of Emerson College's film department.
Li is from China and began her college career at the University of California-Santa Barbara. She says the school's academic ranking played into her original decision. But when she decided to transfer after the first semester, Li paid more attention to word-of-mouth reputations.
"I knew that Emerson is famous among filmmakers and students," Li said. "Being featured on Hollywood Reporter as one of the best film schools definitely helped."
An aspiring filmmaker, Li knew the American magazine covers the Los Angeles film, television and entertainment industries. A name drop in their pages meant Emerson was the real deal.
"A lot of my Chinese friends in the UC system were tweeting and posting about how high their schools ranked," said Li. "I think there's a sense of pride and accomplishment to get into the top 50/100/200 schools."
Although U.S. Department of Education statistics show that higher ranking schools produce graduates with higher salaries, not everyone will get into the top schools, experts say. Students are encouraged to look for the right fit over prestige.
"It is important that they look at other factors," said Rajika Bhandari, head of research, policy and practice at the Institute of International Education. "The U.S. Department of State's Education: USA network offers an unbiased source of information on the whole range of U.S. higher education institutions, from community colleges to liberal arts colleges to research universities."
Having said that, here are the rankings:
Times Higher Education (World)
The University of Oxford snagged the No. 1 spot for the second year, while the University of Cambridge beat out the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University for second place, according to Times Higher Education, a respected British ranking and publisher.
CalTech and Stanford tied for third on THE's list.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Princeton University, Imperial College London and University of Chicago placed fifth through ninth. The University of Zurich (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland and University of Pennsylvania tied for 10th.
Cambridge rose in the ranks because of a boost in research quality and research income, said Times Higher Education, a weekly magazine in London. CalTech and Stanford were hurt by dips in their Ph.D.-to-bachelor's student ratios.
Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit received a record-breaking amount of funding in 2016 after the poaching of a beloved African lion, Cecil, in Zimbabwe in July 2015. It was one of the major contributing factors that bumped Oxford above CalTech, said Louise Richardson, Oxford's vice-chancellor, to The Telegraph last year. Prior, CalTech had held first place five years running.
THE says it uses 13 performance indicators to rank institutions, including innovation, international diversity, teaching, research and citations. It's one of the most widely consulted global rankings, called "arguably the most influential" by the Globe and Mail in 2010.
Oxford accepted 17 percent of 19,144 applicants for the 2016 school year, according to its website. International students from outside the United Kingdom make up 18.5 percent of the undergraduate student body. Chinese and American students sent the most applications out of any non-EU region, with 9 percent and 6 percent acceptance rates, respectively.
Times Higher Education (U.S.)
THE also recently released their U.S. college ranking list. The U.S. list emphasizes student engagement, student outcomes, and learning environments rather than the institution's research performance, which the global list prioritizes.
From first to 10th, these are THE's top American universities: Harvard, Columbia University, Stanford University, MIT, Duke University, Yale University, CalTech, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Cornell University.
Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as Shanghai Ranking, is another globally respected college ranking service, ranking since 2003.
Harvard topped their list, with Stanford following second. Cambridge, MIT, University of California-Berkeley, Princeton, Oxford, Columbia University, CalTech and the University of Chicago ranked third through 10th.
US News & World Report
U.S. publications gave American schools higher rankings: Princeton University, Harvard, University of Chicago and Yale University (tied for third), Columbia University, Stanford and MIT (tied for fifth), while the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University in North Carolina, and CalTech scored eighth, ninth, and 10th, respectively, according to US News & World Report.
Forbes Magazine ranked Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, MIT, CalTech, University of Pennsylvania, Duke, Brown, and Pomona College in that order.
Forbes also ranked the "best" public colleges in America. The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, placed first and edged out the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, from the seat it's held since 2014. Third was the University of California-Berkeley, followed by the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and the University of Virginia at No. 5. The Air Force Academy took sixth place, with No. 7 going to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and University of California-Los Angeles maintaining eighth place. The Merchant Marine Academy climbed to No. 9 from 61 while the College of William and Mary in Virginia dropped to No. 10.
Newcomer site Niche says they use a complicated formula to rank schools. They boast the most comprehensive data in the industry, using "rigorous analysis of academic, admissions, financial, and student life data from the U.S. Department of Education along with millions of reviews from students and alumni" to rank and profile K-12 schools, as well as colleges.
Niche's college ranking was comprised of only American universities. They put Stanford at the top of the list, followed by MIT, Harvard, Yale, Rice University in Texas, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Bowdoin College in Maine, and CalTech.
"Rankings are not benign," said Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker in 2011. "They enshrine very particular ideologies and, at a time when American higher education is facing a crisis of accessibility and affordability, we have adopted a de-facto standard of college quality that is uninterested in both of those factors."
"If we don't understand what the right proxies for college quality are, let alone how to represent those proxies in a comprehensive, heterogeneous grading system, then our rankings are inherently arbitrary."