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What College Rankings Mean

college rankings

Families that eagerly await the annual U.S. News & World Report College Edition may be placing too much reliance on one resource. They assume that the complexities of college selection can be simplified into a publication’s rankings. They seek an effortless way out of the difficulties of college selection. Families should roll up their sleeves and do the hard work necessary to identify the colleges that fit the student best. College rankings are tools that can be used to create some data to consider, but there is no shortcut to building a target college list that is in harmony with a particular student’s educational interests and potential.

College Rankings Are Controversial

Since 1983, U.S. News & World Report (U. S. News) has published an annual College Edition that ranks American colleges in various categories. Although U. S. News is the most popular, it is not alone in this market niche. Other publications that release college rankings include Forbes, Money, Barron’s, Kiplinger’s, College Atlas, the Economist, and the New York Times. They are all reputable sources that base their analyses on the same data (the Common Data Set) but arrive at different rankings based on their distinctive methodologies and formulas.

The U.S. News College Edition is published annually in September. Each year, this sets off an undeserved avalanche of criticism that The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls a “National Carpfest.” The 2023 rankings are causing more carping than usual, mainly from law and medical schools. However, two undergraduate colleges, the Rhode Island School of Design and Colorado College, have stated that they will no longer cooperate with U.S. News because they feel that its rankings reinforce social inequities. Other schools have also expressed dissatisfaction with U.S. News and rankings in general.

This mini-movement against magazine rankings has prompted speculation that colleges will abandon them. This is unlikely. By and large, rankings are useful to colleges. However, U.S. Education Department Secretary Miguel Cardona essentially called for abandonment at a recent conference. He said that colleges should:

“Stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News and World Report. Rankings disincentivize the wealthiest institutions from enrolling and graduating more underserved students. That’s because doing so harms their selectivity, a factor in the U.S. News formula. Colleges, not some for-profit magazine, should set the higher education agenda.”

To some, it’s inappropriate for Secretary Cardona to blame the magazines for the fact that college rankings are misused. His position draws attention to a common criticism of college administrations. Many institutions adopt certain policies and practices based on the likelihood that they will raise their position in the rankings. They are accused of assigning a higher priority to their position in the rankings than to more important considerations.

Although it’s ethically questionable, many administrators adopt methods to manipulate their school’s data in order to generate improved metrics for ranking calculations. Some administrators do this routinely because a rise in rank helps them justify tuition and salary increases. Consequences are rare, but occasionally a college gets called out for it in the media, as have Baylor and Columbia. Deceptive practices by administrators can lead to a “Buyer Beware!” type of marketplace for college selection, which would be unfortunate.

In their response to Secretary Cardona, U.S. News observed that colleges don’t like to be compared to each other by objective third parties. They asserted that Cardona should require colleges to be more transparent, stating:

“More openness from colleges would allow prospective students and their families to make meaningful comparisons between institutions based on factors such as financial information, admissions data, and outcome statistics.”

How Parents and Students View Rankings

The rankings publications are entitled to publish anything they want about colleges without fearing legal repercussions. They are protected by the first amendment and do their utmost to assure the accuracy of the information they present. Concerns arise not about the college rankings themselves but in the way that families perceive and use them.

What many families don’t understand is that rankings cannot assess the qualitative factors that matter most to students. Each student has different financial resources, talents, preferences, experiences, goals, and personal traits. Finding a student’s best-fit colleges should be a result of a subjective analysis by the student that takes these factors into account. It cannot be done by using only a formula-driven calculation — the method used by the publishers. Rankings can serve as useful information in a student’s college search — but only in a secondary role in support of subjective analysis.

When purchasing a product like a TV, a publication that assists decision-making like Consumer Reports is a resource that can be relied upon. They conduct research, analyze, and test products. They rank them from best-buy on down. That choosing a college is not like buying a TV is an understatement, but publishers are only capable of evaluating colleges as if they were three-dimensional products.

Rankings as a Resource

College rankings can serve as handy reference sources for information about colleges. For example, U.S. News devotes substantial effort every year to compiling and analyzing information relating to more than 3,000 colleges — about 75% of the U.S. total. What’s important is that all of the rankings publishers attempt to produce are comparisons of colleges based on a level playing field. They rely on mathematical models that incorporate the factors that they deem most important to the quality and value of a college education.

Publisher Methodologies

Families decide for themselves how much credence to place on rankings. To help make that decision, they should review a publisher’s methodology. As an example, the weighting assigned to the indicators used in the U.S. News algorithm is provided below in Table A. How the indicators are measured is more complex than the weighting alone.

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Table A

U.S. News Ranking Indicators & Weights

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