While U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings are wildly popular, few families know much about how they are created.
Before you place too much faith in U.S. News’ college rankings, here are 15 things that you should know about them.
1. U.S. News relies on rankings to stay alive.
U.S. News’ college rankings wields tremendous power even though the rankings giant is a shell of its former self. Long ago U.S. News couldn’t attract enough subscribers to keep the magazine going.
To survive, U.S. News issues junk rankings for all sorts of stuff including such things as hospitals, cars, diets, high schools, law firms, vacations, cruises and health insurers!
2. U.S. News’ college rankings have encouraged institutional bad behavior.
U.S. News’ college ranking system is one of the chief culprits for escalating college prices and encouraging harmful admission practices.
Millions of students have been adversely impacted by the rankings competition because of the actions of the audience that cares most deeply about the numbers – college presidents and their boards of trustees, and by extension, their admission offices.
For these folks, US News has provided them with an easy (though deeply flawed) scorecard to measure how their institutions are faring and they are distraught if their school’s ranking stalls out, or worse, drops.
3. The college rankings formula can be gamed.
Plenty of universities have figured out how to crack the code to climb up the rankings ladder.
Northeastern University is one of the schools that focused single-mindedly on improving their rankings. Two decades ago, Northeastern was considered an third-tier, blue-collar commuter school stuck with an unattractive campus.
But then a new college president took over and focused single mindedly on saving the institution by doing whatever was possible to boost its U.S. News ranking.
Four years ago, Boston Magazine explored this Cinderella tale and quoted the Northeastern president as saying, “There’s no question that the system invites gaming.”
U.S. News ranks Northeastern, which is now an extremely popular destination, as No. 40 in the coveted national university category. Twenty years ago it was ranked No. 162 and it was rare for anyone outside of Boston to have heard of it.
George Washington University was another struggling commuter school that successfully cracked the U.S. News college rankings code and began attracting affluent students who could pay higher prices for a bachelor’s degree and, in turn, attract even more high-income teenagers.
Here is an article from Washington Monthly about how ranking manipulation catapulted GWU in the rankings. It’s now ranked No. 56 in the national university category.
4. Popularity is a big ratings factor.
A school’s reputation among the right people will significantly impact it’s U.S. News ranking.
In annual surveys, three administrators from the offices of president, provost and admission at each school in the national university category, for instance, must assess what they think about all their peers on a one-to-five grading scale. (One is marginal and five is distinguished.)
Here, however, is the dilemma:
What do administrators at UCLA, Johns Hopkins, University of Tulsa and Clemson know about what’s going on at Brandeis, Case Western Reserve, Virginia Tech and Florida State, much less 300 other schools in the national university category?
Or how about schools in the liberal arts college category that have far less name recognition. What do administrators at my son and daughter’s alma mater – Beloit and Juniata colleges – know about the academic quality at Lake Forest, Coe, Rhodes and Allegheny colleges?
Rating peers on one-to-five scale is an absurd exercise that administrators should refuse to do.
5. U.S. News measures six-year graduation rates.
I don’t know any parents who thinks that graduating from college in six years is acceptable. U.S. News, however, uses six-year rates when evaluating schools. Another head scratcher.
6. Rankings encourage colleges to favor affluent students.
US News awards schools which generate higher test scores and grade point averages for their incoming freshmen class, which favors rich students.
This focus on selectivity has been a boon for affluent high school students, who tend to enjoy better academic profiles. These teens can afford expensive test-prep courses and are more likely to have attended schools with stronger academic offerings. There is a strong positive correlation between standardized test scores and family income.
Attracting richer students allows the school to boost their sticker prices without alienating too many potential customers.
7. Rankings encourage the use of merit scholarships.
Before the rankings became so prominent, high-income students typically had to pay full price for college. The majority of grants were reserved for middle-class and low-income students, who required financial help.
But with the rankings premium linked to top students, private and public institutions began offering merit scholarships to entice smart, wealthy students to their campuses rather than to their competitors.
How do you cough up the money for these deal sweeteners?
One way is to raise the tuition price to generate extra revenue for these scholarships and another way is to reduce the financial aid to needy students. Low and middle-income students are the big losers in the rankings game.
8. Elite schools are the exception to merit awards.
The only schools that don’t offer merit scholarships to rich students are the institutions that are perched at the top of U.S. News’ college rankings.
Wealthy parents whose children get into the top-rated schools in U.S. News’ national university and liberal arts colleges categories, such as Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Amherst, will pay roughly $300,000 for a SINGLE bachelor’s degree, but they won’t do it for other schools.
The most elite schools boast that they reserve their aid to the families who need financial help to attend college, but most of these institutions offer admissions to a shamefully low percentage of needy students. The most elite schools primarily educate wealthy students.
9. Rankings encourage admission tricks
For instance, US News’ algorithm favors schools that spurn more students. To increase their rejection rates, schools will court students through marketing materials and social media that they have no intention of accepting.
Here’s another trick: some institutions make it easy for students to apply via streamlined online applications, which are referred to in the industry as “fast apps.” Schools use this strategy to increase the size of their student body, as well as bump up their rejection rates.
10. Rankings don’t measure what’s important.
One of the perverse aspects about the rankings is that turning out thoughtful, articulate young men and women, who can write cogently and think critically won’t budge a school’s ranking up even one spot. Curiously enough, U.S. News doesn’t even attempt to measure the type of learning going on at schools.
In reality, the methodology fueling the rankings are a collection of subjective measurements that students and families are supposed to rely upon to pinpoint the schools doing the best job of educating undergraduates. U.S. News relies on proxies for educational quality, but these proxies are dubious at best.
11. Rankings encourage cheating.
Rankings have become such a high-stakes game that some schools send false data or have acted unethically. And I suspect that most of the schools that are manipulating their figures have never been caught. Those that have been outed include Claremont McKenna, U.S. Naval Academy, Baylor University, Emory University.
12. Rankings encourage debt.
This is incredibly infuriating – the rankings giant ignores how much college debt students are incurring. It’s a terrible omission that is certainly one reason why college tuition continues to defy inflation.
US News rewards schools that spend freely and the rankings juggernaut doesn’t care if that requires universities to boost their prices and graduate students with staggering debt.
Here is an old post -that I wrote about this phenomenon for my previous college blog at CBS Moneywatch:
Blaming College Rankings for Runaway College Costs
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article for The New Yorker in 2011 on college rankings in which he talked about the incentive of institutions to turn their campuses into lavish palaces and stick the bill with the kids:
13. Don’t believe the numbers.
You should not believe that a college ranked No. 1 or 19th or 73rd is better than peers ranked 6th or 42nd or 95th best. I’ve seen too many parents make terrible financial sacrifices to send their kids to rankings darlings when it was completely unnecessary.
The school that you attend isn’t as important as what a student does wherever he or she lands. I wrote a post about my daughter four years ago that illustrates this fact.
14. Use U.S. News as a tip sheet.
Rather than focus on the numbers, consider using U.S. News rankings to generate ideas. This will be particularly helpful in searching for promising schools beyond the national university category, which includes nearly all of the nation’s best-known universities.
Try looking for ideas in U.S. News’ regional universities and liberal arts college categories and then start researching them.
15. U.S. News is here to stay.
A few years ago, Brian Kelly, the U.S. News editor made this promise during an press interview: “You can love us or hate us, but we’re not going away.”
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I’ve been following the US News college rankings since they began back in the eighties and have watched my alma mater, William & Mary, which primarily focuses on undergraduates; slide down in the rankings over the years due the fact that the magazine’s methodologists have increasingly moved towards emphasizing attributes to measure undergraduate programs that actually detract from the undergraduate experience. As one example, they reward colleges in the rankings for having enormous endowments, especially on the National Universities list, even though these endowments are primarily used for graduate level research by both grad students and professors, and the money barely trickles down to the undergraduate programs. These universities have a large percentage of undergraduate courses that are taught by graduate Teaching Assistants, so the quality of the day-to-day learning experience of undergraduates at these schools is actually lower — yet the rankings suggest otherwise. So many of these statistics are gamed, as you say; such as universities listing a student-teacher ratio that is a joke, because many of the teachers are counted as teaching even though they teach no undergraduate sections or only one and spend most of their time on research and publishing. The only statistic that matters in this realm is the average introductory freshman class size, but only if using the same subject across the board, so you’re comparing apples to apples. But I’m sure they’d find a way to game that, too! Overall, guides such as the Fiske guide and your website are much better to use for learning about colleges, because they actually tell you something about the substance of the college, the atmosphere, how much teaching is emphasized, and how much undergraduates are actually valued and focused on there. In my opinion, colleges shouldn’t be ranked at all by magazines for anything other than perhaps crime statistics and other objective, raw data, because it is truly like comparing apples and oranges. It’s literally just one stupid magazine’s editors deciding for all of us that a handful of attributes are important for ranking and then going ahead and ranking based on those. You could throw in any attribute you want, such as “percentage of undergraduates with purple hair,” and it would completely change the make up of the lists. I’m unsure as to the truth in this, but I read somewhere that in the early days of the ranking, US News had ONE MAN deciding all of the attributes and devising the rankings. ONE! So this one person had all this power over determining what makes a college good for other people. I am amazed that in a well-educated area such as where I live, in the DC metropolitan area, where the population collectively holds the highest percentage of college degrees in the nation; people fall for these rankings and don’t take the time to think for themselves or question and analyze the methodology at all. If you give it any thought at all, you can quickly come to the conclusion that their methodology is faulty at best and downright damaging at worst. I’m sure US News works hard to make sure most wealthy, private and/or well endowed research universities end up in the top 50 portion of the National Universities section. Early in the rankings, William & Mary (which is public) was ranked roughly equal to or even ahead of Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Georgetown. Now those pricey private schools have steadily moved up while W&M, with its public university status, lower emphasis on research (thus less research endowment money), and undergraduate focus has moved down; despite the fact that it has much smaller classes for undergraduates than these other schools with almost all of them taught by full professors (and produces more baccalaureate earners in the state than any other college who go on to earn PhDs). People in my area are obsessed with these rankings to an obscene level — it’s ridiculous, and it’s what is totally stressing kids out. They get the message that being accepted into a US News top 50 National University (or around a top 25 National Liberal Arts school) will make or break their lives and that they will be failures or won’t make their parents proud if they don’t make one of those. They need to know the truth — that it’s not where you go to college but what you do with your time there that matters most, period. I sat with a group of parents at a luncheon the other day whose kids were just graduating from college this spring. There were two young men graduating — one from UVA and one from JMU. Everyone in the DC area pines to get into UVA, which is highly selective and prestigious, despite the fact that small discussion classes led by professors are relatively rare there. Yet each of these young men was hired into the same prestigious, selective business consulting firm, Deloitte, and each was hired for the EXACT same job/career path, as well as a special management trainee program for the most talented applicants. I have seen it playing out this way dozens of times this spring and over the last few years in my elite-obsessed community. It’s simply not true that you must attend a so-called “top tier” (a US News-born phrase that I detest!) college in order to find your way to a bright and interesting career path someday.
As a Princeton grad, I have no problem with the U.S. News survey at all – I enjoy watching my Yalie friends cringe; except to state the obvious: one cannot encapsulate / reduce excellence to a number. Choose your college based on what really matters: the variables of which only you can determine. Good luck.
Thanks for this very informative post. I’d be interested in knowing whether there any college rankings that you do think are worthwhile?
First and foremost, thank you! I started assisting our daughter with her search over a year ago by listening to one of your webcasts — she enrolled at Drexel University two weeks ago!
I love that you have this all in one post. I’ve already forwarded it to several people.
I wonder how you view the High School rankings by USNW? They came out recently and our children’s school is quite high. Are you familiar with the methodology for this ranking and is it as flawed as the college rankings?
Not that I want to burst anyone’s bubble, but I’m not a fan.
Congratulations on your daughter’s enrollment at Drexel! I wish her all the best!
I have as dim a view about U.S. News’ high school rankings as I do with its assessment of college quality.
Here is an excellent article that discusses what’s wrong with the high school rankings.
Just like the college rankings, USNWR does a superficial job of evaluating high schools.
Thanks for passing along my post to other parents!
Thank you for writing this, Lynn! After several years of researching the college admissions and financial aid processes, I’ve decided there’s no need to worry about my kids getting into any particular college and certainly no need to spend more than necessary on college or go into any debt. I’m free! And so are my kids! We can actually enjoy our lives rather than enslaving ourselves to this soul-sucking college admissions process!
GOOD FOR YOU! I wish more parents – and students – would stop torturing themselves regarding all aspects of what to many is that soul-sucking admission process. One way to be free is to let go of the need that too many affluent parents have and that is to get their kids into schools with high USNWR rankings!
Lynn, I’ve been reading your blog for about 5 years now. My daughter will be a rising senior at Beloit after finals next week. This post is spot on. And, coincidentally, it mentions my 2018 HS grad son’s college college choice: Lake Forest College. It makes me chuckle that my two California kids will attend college 90 miles from each other. Rankings don’t matter. Really!
Congratulations on your children’s successes! My son Ben applied to Lake Forest College too, but he fell hard for Beloit!
What parents don’t realize is that the discounts kids can get from a college far away can many times over make up for airfare. Also getting to Beloit from San Diego was easy. Ben always got a nonstop flight to OHare and took the bus that went from OHare to Beloit and Madison, WI. I felt his travel was much safer than driving than kids driving back and forth to college.
Yes, my daughter flies from Los Angeles to O’Hare and takes the Van Galder bus, too. It’s really the perfect setup.
What exactly do you mean by… “Try looking for ideas in U.S. News’ regional universities and liberal arts college categories” What kind of ideas are you referring to?
I meant look for schools in these categories that would be worthwhile researching. Very few people have heard of the schools in these categories and yet there are many gems to be discovered!
Nancy: Among many, perhaps hundreds, of helpful, informative posts, this one is my favorite! I have been fighting with Robert Morse, the originator of the USNWR Rankings almost since the beginning. Although there is an abundance of information in each annual issue, and this must be acknowledged, marketing the publication on the ‘exclusive’ rankings has distorted institutional reputations, tested the integrity of college administrators, caused fundamental disagreements of principle over pragmatics and excluded worthy colleges/universities from consideration by myriads of information-seeking families. From a business perspective, this issue has literally salvaged USNWR. From an educational perspective, it has misled thousands of readers into ‘believing’ that #12 college is ‘better’ than #45. There is no regard for fit, for affordability, for learning style, for milieu and for many salient factors inherent in the college quest. To ask ‘peers’ to judge one another is fraught with fixing by desperate folk whose Trustees are at the door demanding recognition for their dollars and from alumni needing to feed their egos. In my opinion, the rankings trend, now capitalized by many ‘copycats,’ has been the most poisonous pill in the entire educational enterprise.
You summed up the problem with USNWR better than I could! I totally agree that college rankings has been the most poisonous pill in the higher-ed world!!
Absolutely! So well stated, Mr. Haas.
As a school counselor, I’ve found that these rankings are especially popular with my international students… or more accurately, with their parents. Apparently in many countries, people think these are authoritative, government-produced lists since they’re published by the official-sounding “US News & World Report.” I wonder if these rankings would get so much misguided respect and acceptance, even here in the US, if they had they been published by TIME or Newsweek. I understand the desire for a way to measure, evaluate, and compare colleges… but sadly the most popular resource is, as you describe, one of the least valid and most harmful.
Thank you for your excellent article. I plan to share it with my students and families.
I think your observation about the importance that international students bestow on these rankings is correct, as well as unfortunate. While the name might trick foreigners, I think the fact that US News rolled out the first rankings is what led to its success.
Thanks for sharing the articles with your families!!
True. I have international families tell me that unless their kids graduated from the top fifty schools listed in USNWR companies won’t even look at them.
I’m reminded what one author has said that is so critical to remember: “Colleges are businesses. This must not be forgotten.”
This seems to be incontrovertible.
To that end, as a business, colleges will ALWAYS:
1) try to hold their actual costs of serving customers down. This means pressure to NOT decrease teacher-student ratio’s. Their is much manipulation that occurs to dress this metric up. Visiting campus and classes is key to seeing past this.
2) try to increase their margins. This means getting the highest price out of those who have it to spend. This means the more wealthy, full-paying customers, the better.
3) Market to support the above two objectives: pricing at the absurd levels seen today serves to maximize those who can use federal funds and loans to effectively pay full price. As long as our government funds college WITHOUT any attempt to constrain unjustified suppliers cost increases/markups, i.e., similar to how Medicare keeps some medical costs under control, this crazy pricing economic model will continue. Whatever the government is will to give away, colleges WILL find a way to get it, without increasing their own costs of teaching. Additionally, as you describe, marketing to enough lower income students who will allow them to (a) still get the highest scoring students and (b) create a sense of diversity for the campus.
Your point about what is NOT measured well, i.e., the actual effectiveness of improving a student’s thinking and communicating ability significantly beyond what it was when they arrived on campus, is the biggest flaw in assessing and choosing a college today. You can figure out the cost if you work at it. The hardest thing to gauge is the effect of the teaching itself, which is the core value purchased. Others things also matter, but none moreso than the improvement of one’s mind..
Thank you! i am constantly reminding my students not to take these lists too seriously. It is sad that they get as much attention as they do and what lengths schools will go to improve their ranking.
I have to say first, I’m a big fan of yours, but secondly I may have some input as one of these middle class families. My daughter just chose Princeton over Yale and free merit rides from Emory, UCF, UF, USC and Washington & Lee. She was also admitted to UVa and Williams and waitlisted at Harvard, Cornell and a handful of others. Our total family out of pocket cost with a $55,000 family income will be $1,750 for Princeton next year and my daughter will need to contribute $650 in summer earnings. Honestly, attending Princeton is cheaper than her staying home.
Next, I think the demographics at the Ivies are far different than what they used to be. Have you seen this recent 60 minutes episode? https://www.princeton.edu/news/2018/04/29/60-minutes-features-princetons-transformative-efforts-increase-socioeconomic. Part of the reason my daughter chose Princeton (although her Yale package was similarly priced) was the diversity not just of the student body, but the socio-economic status of the students as well. See here for the demographics of the Class of 2022: https://www.princeton.edu/news/2018/03/28/princeton-offers-admission-55-percent-class-2022-applicants. I just don’t think a poor minority would feel so out of place at the Ivies these days, and perhaps this is part of the reason they continue to rank so highly too.
My daughter is finding exactly the same experience you describe at Amherst College. She pays $1700 per year and has found that she fits in with the student population quite well. Coming from a lower income family and a very small town she was unsure what she would experience, but now as a senior there, I can say it has been great for her.
I’m thrilled to hear of your daughter’s experience!!
…I am not suggesting that there aren’t lower-income students at the most elite schools, but these institutions are primarily interested in educating very wealthy students. Amherst educates more Pell Grant students than most elite schools, but only 21% of the student body receives Pell Grants. The vast majority of students eligible for Pell Grants in this country have income under $50,000 a year.
At Princeton, which another mom mentioned today, 17% of students receive Pell Grants.
Some popular private and state universities have more students in the top 1% of income than in the bottom 60%! Here is an excellent article from The New York Times that illustrates this reality:https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/upshot/some-colleges-have-more-students-from-the-top-1-percent-than-the-bottom-60.html
Sorry, but this screams of being a self-aggrandizing “look at how smart my kid is so I must be a great parent” post. Princeton diverse? Come now. Now lets take a look at where US News has Princeton ranked. Hmh.
Gary, that clearly has nothing to do with the point being made. Do your research before posting. Princeton is VERY diverse both in ethnicity and socioeconomic status: https://www.princeton.edu/news/2018/03/28/princeton-offers-admission-55-percent-class-2022-applicants.
Hi Lynn, this is a great list and really important information to keep in mind when looking at colleges.
Do you have any data on job outcomes for students at highly ranked schools vs. state schools or lower ranked privates that have generous merit scholarships? Given the low unemployment rate I would hope all students have a bright future and can achieve the “American Dream” regardless of tuition price but I would guess that parents buy a highly ranked BA/BS for better job opportunities and connections.
Elite schools can charge obscene amounts of money and charge full price for many of their students because of the belief that these institutions give out gold tickets by the truck loads. Elite schools primarily educate wealthy students which explains much of it success.
Children raised in high-income families are more than likely to also end up living comfortable financial lives. These kids are going to do well whether they attend an elite private school, a state school or spend four years after high school in a closet. Ivies and other extremely sought-after schools are getting undeserved credit for their alums success. Studies have showed that the students who get a boost in salary at these elite schools are first-gen and minorities.
Families are spending hundreds of dollars more than they need to because rankings darlings stoke the myth that they are indispensible for a life of success.
I work in a selective workplace that has a mix of Ivy League, big state university, regional university, and small liberal arts grads working for it. We have people from historically black colleges, public commuter colleges, Ivies, and everything in between. In my conversations with the Ivy League grads (whom I love to note all ended up at the same employer as folks who did not attend a famous university). We require a rigorous, in person writing sample, several interviews, a cognitive test, and an overall entrance exam that tests knowledge of world affairs, civics, and history as part of the selection process. My Ivy League colleagues claim what you are saying is true, Lynn; that the wealthy students who come into Ivy League schools (which is the vast majority of the students) arrive already well connected, and once there, proceed to interact mostly with other well connected students. Even though Ivies like to emphasize not having Greek systems (other than possibly Dartmouth, which is paring theirs down due to problems and Cornell), they have formed other sorts of exclusive clubs that serve the same purpose, such as the eating clubs at Princeton, which are meant to be exclusive and keep “people of similar interests” together. These schools have historically enabled the well-heeled to used them as ways to expand their already stellar network, which are key to landing jobs such as those in Wall Street firms. They are not attuned to letting outsiders in. It’s a well oiled machine, and outsiders often don’t understand how it works. Only a few savvy ones ever figure it out or are lucky enough to have one of its members take them under their wing. My Ivy League colleagues, with a few exceptions, are from the middle class or lower classes and attended these schools on scholarship. They were not part of the exclusive clubs, and they had to find their internships the same way state university students do. In fact, one of my friends said she didn’t find the career services offices at her Ivy League school to be particularly helpful, because they are used to the students there getting their jobs through family connections or close friends of their families. This is why they look successful compared to students from less famous schools — not because their education is any better. And breaking into their network is something that only the boldest and most confident of the “outsiders” (the scholarship students) is able to do. Most of that category of students must hit the pavement, scour the want ads, and use the career services office just like students at any ordinary university. In a nutshell, my colleagues say that the connection factor at Ivy League schools is overrated for all but the very poorest students (and underrepresented minorities can get a boost) and that these students would have landed the same jobs and acquired the same wealth if they had gone to their local commuter school. This was very eye-opening to me, indeed.
Mary Beth, thank you for your spot on comment. My daughter currently attends a Harvard ‘feeder’ school on a significant scholarship. The wealthy children are already well connected and, while polite and somewhat inclusive, she feels very much an outsider. We would not be categorized as minority in the traditional sense, however we are socio-economically so far below the other parents there, that we consider ourselves an economic minority. I often wonder if it is the correct school for her. While she is receiving a wonderful education and making some nice friends, she is not as vivacious at school as she is outside of school. I can tell you that I certainly won’t be encouraging any Ivy League college applications.
As usual Lynn you hit the nail on the head.
Thanks for publishing.
I am glad you liked my post! Thanks for reading it!