Gaming the College Rankings System

The annual U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings edition is fun to read. In the past, I’ve poured over it myself.

The rankings, however, are flawed. I’ve covered many of the reasons why U.S. News & World Report’s rankings are sketchy in my book, The College Solution, as well as in some of my blog posts.

Here’s one reason that I don’t recall mentioning before: schools could be cheating or at least acting unethically when they fill out the magazine’s survey.

That’s the conclusion that you could easily draw after hearing an administrator at Clemson University talk candidly about the ranking practices at this public institution in South Carolina. Before you can appreciate what the accusation is, however, you have to understand that an institution’s reputation is the biggest component of the ranking system. It’s how this reputation is determined that’s nuts.

So how does U.S. New determine pinpoint the reputation of  the University of Missouri (my alma mater)  or the University of California, Berkeley (my husband’s alma mater) or any other four-year institution? It’s simple. The magazine sends three reputational surveys to administrators at all the schools in the same category. Consequently, the administrators at all the schools in the national university category have to grade each other. Three administrators at each liberal arts school evaluate each other and so on.

I always wondered how administrators at schools as diverse as Georgetown, Penn State, University of Mississippi, University of Kansas and UCLA could possibly grade each other. Frankly, if someone at UCLA really knew enough to evaluate the academic quality of the University of Missouri, I’d argue that the administrator wasn’t paying enough attention to his or her own campus.

And that leads us back to Clemson. Because schools are grading each other – and the reputational evaluations count for 25% of the overall scores – wouldn’t it be tempting for administrators who are obsessed with the rankings to grade their competition as below average? During a recent academic conference that’s essentially what a Clemson administrator said had been happening at her campus .

The candid admission caused a firestorm of controversy. I suspect, however, that Clemson, if it is trying to sabotage its competitors’ scores, is hardly the only school trying to game the USNWR college rankings.

It’s incidents like these that have made me a higher ed cynic.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and is also the college blogger at

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