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Why the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings Are Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

United States college rankings, stars on steps going higher

Pursuing a college education is a significant life milestone. To a certain extent, picking a university can be as crucial as choosing which college major to take. Thus, families take time in selecting the right university for their children. Published United States college rankings can be a good starting point when trimming down choices. People anticipate the publication of the United States college rankings as a new batch of students enter universities and colleges every year. While college rankings may be the go-to source of information, there are always criticisms and doubts around it. What is the basis for these rankings? Most significantly, are college rankings relevant?

cartoon of a student being asked which universities are really the best?
Would you make decisions out of the results of the U.S. News and World Report University Rankings?

U.S. News and World Report College Rankings: How Universities Make the Cut

The U.S. News and World Report college rankings are the oldest and most famous United States college rankings. In fact, the publication of “America’s Best Colleges” by U.S. News and World Report in 1983 has spun an interest in university rankings across the globe. Published annually since 1987, the U.S. News and World Report college rankings offer an overview of the country’s leading educational institutions and academic programs. The gathering of data is from online surveys and there are a set of indicators from which the rating of institutions come from.

united states college rankings, students may be influenced by these rankings
The U.S. News and World Report college rankings have included indicators that have been found questionable.

The numbers and weights of indicators may change yearly. For 2019, Educational Outcomes had a 35% share. This criterion includes social mobility, graduation/retention rates, and graduation rate performance. Faculty resources (Class Size, Faculty Salary, Faculty Ratio, and Proportion) and Expert Opinion (Peer Assessment and High School Counselor Assessment) both weighted at 20%. Financial Resources and Student Excellence get 10% each, and Alumni Giving gets 5%.

The Disparity in Rankings and Successful Educational Outcomes

California, Massachusetts, and New York rank as the top three states with the most number of schools included in the recent U.S. News and World Report University Rankings lists. However, it is interesting to note that in higher education rankings, the state of Florida takes the top spot. Massachusetts drops to the 27th spot while California and New York make the 4th and 15th spot, respectively. Observers attribute the disparity of the results with the markers used in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings.

One point of contention posed against rankings is that indicators that spell student success (standardized student tests and percentage of the population who are college educated) were assigned lower value. Similarly, the inclusion of measures that do not contribute to a successful educational outcome (faculty salary, faculty ratio, and proportion, alumni donation) has also been an object of discussion. The removal of these indicators changed the rankings significantly. Critics of published rankings point out that by focusing on actual educational outcomes, “top schools” were shown to be more geographically scattered. The inclusion of geographical diversity in the picture offers more options to students in their pursuit of higher education.

State Education Rankings Infographics

United States College Rankings: From Yardstick of Excellence to Reputation Play

U.S. News and World Report college rankings and other similar lists have carved out a substantial influence in the field of higher education. The prestige of having more “top schools” within a state has encouraged policymakers to adjust educational spending. Families refer to United States college rankings when deciding which school to enroll. With more talents within reach, businesses prefer setting up near “ranking” schools. From the schools’ perspective, there is a perceptible decline in freshmen applications in each slip in the ranking. At times, rankings can impact the school’s research funding and alumni donations. Therefore, with this reliance on established rankings, these lists have commoditized higher education. Regrettably, what was meant as a yardstick of excellence has turned into a reputation play.

At the individual level, United States college rankings help simplify an otherwise complex and rigorous task of choosing a university. Collectively, rankings have assisted the academic field in setting policies and guidelines. Moreover, it has guided government funding and spending and aided the business sector in developing business strategies and investment priorities. Without a common measure provided by school rankings, informed decisions would have been impossible.

Certainly, inclusion in the “top schools” list has its perks. However, in order to restore the credibility of United States college rankings, exclusivity, prestige, and status need to take a backseat. Players within this space need to remember that United States college rankings are there to espouse transparency of information. Thus, for families and students standing at the crossroads of life, the information that the school rankings offer to make an informed decision has never been more relevant.

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