Why US News and World Report Rankings Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

why-usnews-rankings-dont-mean-what-you-thinkContributed by: Stacey Cunitz, Director of Blue Moon Educational Consulting

Each year, US News and World Report (USNWR) releases its rankings of colleges, and everyone scrambles to figure out what they mean. On the face of it, they are purporting to tell us which colleges are the “best” colleges. However, when we take the time to unpack the methodology, what we find out is that, at best, the rankings simply reinforce the status quo. At worst, the rankings make us overlook some schools that are doing great work and might be the right fit for a particular student.

USNWR has been ranking colleges since 1983. For that initial ranking, it relied solely on academic reputation, only adding statistical data in 1988. Nearly every year since then it has changed that methodology, which makes year to year comparisons difficult. However, each piece of its methodology remains flawed. Here, we will examine two of the factors that go into the rankings.

Academic Reputation: 22.5%

Back in 1983, 100% of the ranking was based on academic reputation. Now, it’s 22.5%. USNWR still claims that college presidents, provosts, and deans are “in a position to judge a school’s academic excellence.” The magazine also surveys counselors from high schools it has highly ranked who then rank colleges on a 5 point scale from “marginal” to “distinguished.” USNWR says that it asks participants to skip over schools that they don’t know enough about to rank.

Why we’re not buying it: By USNWR's own admission, it is literally making up the data: “Schools that received less than a total of 10 ratings from high school counselors in this three-year period are not numerically ranked in this one factor but received an estimated high school counselor score for ranking purposes…” In other words, if they don’t have enough input, they estimate it. And what are those estimations based on? They don’t say. In addition, college presidents, deans, and provosts are busy paying attention to their own schools and are not familiar with the inner workings of other institutions. This part of the ranking, more than any other, reinforces the status quo and makes sure that a lesser known college will never rise above an older and more “venerable” institution no matter how superior the educational experience. 

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Graduation and Retention Rate: 22.5%

USNWR uses the six-year graduation rate to make up 80% of this part of the score, and the first year retention rate to make up the rest. They claim that strong figures indicate that the “school is apt to be [better] at offering the classes and services that students need to succeed.”  

 Why we’re not buying it: While graduation rate and first year retention rate might speak to the services and classes the college is offering, they don’t take into consideration schools whose mission is one of access. Let’s take Penn State, for example, which is currently ranked at #52 in National Universities. First, we might ask ourselves whether it is in the right category. At Penn State’s main campus, just over 50% of the students come from Pennsylvania. Compare that to University of Pennsylvania which at #8 draws only 18% of students from Pennsylvania. Is Penn State really “National?” Also, Penn State is public. University of Pennsylvania is private. In fact, not one of the top 20 National Universities is a public school, and public schools have a mission of access: they are charged with educating students in their state. Some states make laws about the percentage of students a college can take from out of state. Certainly private schools have no such obligations and, in fact, often want to boast that they have students from all 50 states and many countries as well.

Think about this: these numbers might be as much a function of input as of output. In other words, a lower graduation or retention rate might reflect the student body and their financial and/or academic struggles, as much as it reflects the quality of the experience on campus. So assuming that you, a senior in high school, are financially secure and academically prepared, you might not have any trouble graduating in four years. And there is a judgment involved in the notion that you might prefer to go to school with other students who are financially secure and have no academic struggles. Perhaps you do prefer it. But it is not inherently better. And USNWR is making that decision for you.

Other factors go into the rankings, too, like Faculty Resources (20%), Student Selectivity (12.5%), Financial Resources (10%), Graduation Rate Performance (7.5%), and Alumni Giving Rate (5%), and we can quibble with each of them, as they each have serious flaws. Ultimately, we hope we’ve given you enough reasons to base your college choice on other factors besides rankings. But if not rankings, then what? Next month, an article about "College Fit: What it Means and How to Find it!"

All quotes and information on the rankings comes from:
https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings
https://www.usnews.com/news/national/articles/2008/05/16/the-birth-of-college-rankings
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/06/20/usnews

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