Well, it depends.
Depending on what kind of research that the student and parent have already done, university rankings might be the first or the last stop in determining the final list. There are many pros and cons to both methods.
Using university rankings first can offer a great, easy-to-read list of colleges – some that are recognizable and others that are not. In fact, this might be the best way of finding the smaller, lesser-known colleges. However, looking at university rankings first proposes a unique set of problems for the student. For one, they may already limit themselves by not even looking beyond the top 20 or 30, judging the other ones as not worthy since they didn’t make it that high. For another, the generally steeper tuition rates of the higher-ranked schools might not look to be a lot compared to their top competitors, when in reality, they are significantly higher overall. There are literally TONS of different ranking bodies that produce their own annual list with their own special methodology. While one school ranks high on one list, it might not carry the same weight on another list. This mix of information can confuse both the student and the parent.
Considering online university rankings last is another method that students and parents use. They have already compiled their own list of colleges and universities and use the rankings to make their OWN rankings in the application process. Another key thing that this method does is allow the students to make their own decisions first before being swayed by college rankings. Some cons to this method include ignoring, or simply not getting informed about, other similar colleges and universities in their interest area. If they already have a set list of schools and are just comparing rankings of these schools, they may be less open to the possibility of adding another school.
The bottom line is that online university rankings are not the end-all in the college search. They should be viewed and used as a tool, realizing that the tool could be flawed as well. An education decision should be made having done the right research, visiting the campus virtually or in person and knowing what will work with finances.