What is Colleges of Distinction?

We Help Students Find the Right College

We’ll help you make sense of the college search process.

With Colleges of Distinction, you can key in on the most important aspects of a school, avoid the rankings trap, and make a confident choice in the college that is right for you.


Fear and Uncertainty in the College Search

Perhaps one of the most feared questions a high school senior can encounter has to do with college:

Where are you going to college this fall?

Are you going to a “top” school?

Does it have a successful football program?

Is it a familiar or local public college that others will recognize?

Parents, who are often just as invested as prospective students, can be equally overwhelmed by the process and the many questions it entails:

  • How do you sift through thousands of potential schools?
  • What should you be looking for and asking about?
  • What makes one school better than another?
  • Which one will prepare you best for a career and fulfilling life?
  • How am I going to afford it?
  • How are you going to be successful as a student and after you graduate?

It’s no wonder why many students and parents find the process frustrating, overwhelming, and intimidating.

Find Your Fit and Succeed!

Picture yourself at the finish line, surrounded by family and friends, prideful of your accomplishments and the hard work you put in. It’s a worthy dream the right school can make a reality.

But a great undergraduate experience is more than just graduating and getting your first job.

Our “Colleges of Distinction” produce students who are also good citizens and responsible family members. Graduates from these schools walk away with a sense of something bigger than themselves—something that makes them “successful” in every sense of the word.

These graduates are prepared for anything. They are strong writers, speakers, and thinkers because their professors have encouraged and challenged them one-on-one. They have meaningful professional experience from internships and advanced research. And they know how to work together with people different than themselves because they have been active on campus, traveled abroad, and pursued service opportunities.

In other words, they are equipped to find better solutions in the workplace, their communities, and the world at large.

Among the clamor of college rankings, Colleges of Distinction stands apart by getting past the statistics and popularity polls in order to listen to the heartbeat of a university’s effectiveness. Colleges of Distinction sets the right standard by which every university should be evaluated.
— Dr. Roger Parrott, Belhaven University President

The Dangers of Choosing the Wrong School

While there are many “right” schools that can meet a student’s needs, desires, and goals, there are others that cannot, leading to a poor fit that can have serious consequences.

For one, enrolling in an “undermatched” school has been found to increase the likelihood of depression. Additionally, a poor fit can force one to go through the pain of transferring to another school, something that 38% of students do at least once. This has obvious undesired effects, such as delaying the time to graduation by a year or more, requiring addition financial costs, and having to build a new life with peers who are already settled.

And dissatisfaction with a school can ultimately lead to students dropping out and not returning to school at all. This often results in having student debt without the benefit of a degree and the loss of as much as $1.5 million dollars in earnings over the course of a career!

The bottom line is that choosing the right school is an important decision—certainly one that shouldn’t be left to skewed rankings systems or biased opinions.

The “Best,” or a Bust?

There is pressure not just to get into a school, but to get into one that friends, family, and others will be familiar with or “impressed” by—usually one on a “top 100” list. That’s understandable, of course, because lists can offer a level of certainty. This or that school is a “top” one, so it surely must provide a better education than those below it, right?

Not quite. These traditional rankings often miss the mark; they include statistics related to how other colleges score a school (reputation), how many students the school rejected (admissions rate), and the amount of money donors have given to it (size of endowment). These metrics cause schools to focus on these limited attributes in order to rank better, regardless of whether they actually help students. In fact, sometimes colleges even provide misleading or false information just to improve their rankings! It’s tough to find a rankings system that acknowledges teaching quality, collaborative opportunities, and active hands-on learning environments. An enriching college experience is hard to fake, but exactly what makes a school great.

Ranking schools puts the focus on the perceived “top” schools despite the fact that only 10% of students actually attend them. The rankings exist primarily for the benefit of this small selection of “big-name” institutions, often to the disadvantage of the 90% of applicants.

We Help You Clarify College and Select the Right Fit

Colleges of Distinction was created in 2000 to help students and their parents navigate the overwhelming process of selecting the right school. We aim to help parents and students find not just the “best” college, but the right one. In order to do this, we met with higher ed experts around the country to dig into what matters most to the average student.

We believe the true measure of a college is found in its people and ideas, not its numbers and rankings.

Over the last 19 years, our staff and advisory group have visited hundreds of colleges and talked to thousands of students, professors, and graduates. These interactions have underscored that the best colleges provide innovative and engaging experiences that prepare students for successful careers, active citizenship, and lifelong learning. And these are often found at schools that are not considered “top” ones by flawed and popular rankings systems.

With these insights, Colleges of Distinction honors and recognizes schools that deliver on four overarching distinctions—Student Engagement, Teaching, Community, and Outcomes. These are the fundamental elements of an effective undergraduate education.

These schools vary in size, cost, location, academic offerings, and more, but they are all distinguished by their commitment to the undergraduate experience. The diversity of the list is intentional, giving students and parents a variety of options to consider. Our list of schools isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but rather to provide a good starting point as you navigate the admissions process and choose the school that is right for you.

More on how we select schools…

At last we have a college resource that evaluates colleges on what matters – how the college actually engages its students. Student engagement is the clarion call for higher education in this new century. Each of these colleges distinguishes themselves through their own unique ways to accomplish just that. This is an essential resource for anyone wanting to explore the landscape of effective colleges.
— Dr. Jim Overton, College Consultants of South Carolina

Your College Search Steps

  1. Sign up with Colleges of Distinction
  2. Read our “How to Pick a School” guide for useful advice to assist you in your college search process
  3. Receive monthly emails with insight and advice as you navigate the college search process
  4. Find and select the college that is right for you!


Scroll to “My Schools” button on the top right of this page!

Nominate a School for Recognition

Do you know of a college or university that deserves Colleges of Distinction’s national recognition? If so, we want to know about it!

All across the country, amazing colleges are changing lives and making an extraordinary impact on their students and surrounding communities. And yet we only ever hear about the elite few who rank as the nation’s “best” colleges.

Help us help the next generation of college students and nominate a school today! Fill out this nomination form or pass it along to fellow colleagues, students, or alumni. With your nomination, we can help connect students with the right schools.

Nominate a School