Mocking the chase for prestige in higher education, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona declared last month any system of ranking colleges that values wealth, reputation and exclusivity more than economic mobility and return on investment is “a joke.”
Cardona didn’t mention U.S. News & World Report. He didn’t have to. Anyone paying attention knew the target of his critique: the “best college” lists from U.S. News that have shaped the hierarchy of higher education since 1983.
As the latest rankings came out Monday, they faced mounting questions about the data that underlie them, the methods used to sort colleges and universities and the intense competition from other publications that churn out best-this and best-that lists in search of clicks from college-bound teenagers and parents.
Those data looked particularly suspect in July, when U.S. News bumped Columbia University from the lofty No. 2 perch among national universities to the hazy status of “unranked,” after questions were raised about accuracy of figures from the Ivy League school in New York. Columbia said in June it would not transmit data this year as it reviewed the matter.
On Friday, the university acknowledged reporting inflated figures for the share of undergraduate classes with fewer than 20 students and the share of full-time professors with terminal degrees. Columbia insisted that the “undergraduate experience is and always has been centered around small classes taught by highly accomplished faculty,” but expressed regret for “deficiencies” of its data reporting.
In the rankings released Monday, Columbia came in 18th. U.S. News said it used publicly available data and other information, including results from its annual survey on the reputation of schools, to assess the university. It has been nearly 20 years since Columbia missed the top 10.
Colleges track a multitude of rankings, domestic and global. While the U.S. News version faces a growing host of competitors, it retains enormous clout.
“By far, the most influential of the rankings, still, is U.S. News,” Colin Diver, former president of Reed College in Portland, Ore., said. He calls it the leader of a “rankocracy” that rules higher education.
Gary S. May, chancellor of the University of California at Davis, is keen to elevate its profile and likes to joke that his favorite list “is always the one we rank highest in.” UC-Davis ranks 10th this year in the U.S. News analysis of public universities, tied with the universities of Texas at Austin and Wisconsin at Madison. But May pointed to another list, from Washington Monthly magazine, that focuses on social mobility, research and public service.
“We just came out as the No. 2 public,” May said, “so that’s fresh in my mind.” May said he is struck by how different approaches to data can “really shuffle the deck for schools that wind up at the top.” The university also follows rankings from The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education, Forbes, Money and elsewhere.
Research shows rankings can sway college-bound students. A 2019 survey of college freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found 15 percent said rankings in national magazines were “very important” in choosing their school. That was up from about 10 percent in 2000.
Many rankers draw data from a federal website, College Scorecard, that the Obama administration launched in 2013 to promote alternatives to the U.S. News way of looking at higher education. The site shows, for specific schools, earnings of former students, levels of student debt, loan-repayment rates, student diversity, graduation and retention rates, net price by family income and other metrics.
Michael Itzkowitz, who directed the College Scorecard under Obama, said the platform’s data has cast a new spotlight on outcomes for students who go to college. Itzkowitz, an analyst for the center-left think tank Third Way, himself created an economic mobility index that ranked California State University at Los Angeles tops in the nation for value it provides to students from low-income families.
“We’ve seen a steadily increasing focus on whether students are graduating, getting a decent-paying job and are able to pay down their loans,” Itzkowitz said, “rather than just exclusivity and test scores. There’s a momentum shift.”
Still, college and university leaders are often of two minds about rankings: Dismiss them publicly; obsess about them privately.
“I see a lot of virtue in the discipline of the rankings,” said the president of one highly regarded university, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a candid assessment. This president, despite misgivings over the formulas, said the rankings help focus internal discussions about school performance. “It’s in the back of everyone’s head.”
The U.S. News ranking formula has evolved, but an enduring element is a survey it sends every year to more than 4,000 college presidents, provosts and admission deans, asking them to rate the academic quality of peer schools on a scale of 1, or “marginal,” to 5, “distinguished.” This counts for 20 percent and ensures that prestige, or lack of it, always weighs significantly.
The formula also factors in faculty resources, including salaries and class size (20 percent), and per-student spending (10 percent), all of which is influenced heavily by institutional wealth. SAT and ACT scores of incoming students, plus their high school class standing, count for 7 percent, and alumni giving rates count for 3 percent.
The growing test-blind movement in college admissions poses a challenge to the formula. After the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, the University of California system decided it will no longer consider SAT or ACT scores for admission. That could make it increasingly tricky for U.S. News to use test results to rank those campuses.
This year, U.S. News used test scores for fall 2020 freshmen to rank schools in the UC system. (UC-Berkeley and UCLA tied for 20th nationally.) For many other universities, it used fall 2021 scores. For still others, it omitted test scores from the calculation entirely.
In recent years, U.S. News has put more emphasis on outcomes, including the share of students who stay enrolled after their first year and the share who graduate within six years. There are also analyses of graduation rates of students from low-income families; whether graduation rates beat or lag predictions; and debt levels of graduates. All of that counts for 40 percent.
U.S. News argues that its formula meets the needs of college-bound students.
“We’re very focused on making sure that universities are doing what they say they would do,” Eric J. Gertler, executive chairman and chief executive of U.S. News, said. “Our mission is to make sure that students make the best decision for themselves.”
U.S. News said about 40 million users visited its Best Colleges website in 2021. A Google search of “college rankings” one recent day turned up U.S. News at the top.
Just below was Niche.com, a platform to search for schools. It ranks colleges using a variety of federal data points and student and alumni reviews. Niche claims that it draws more social-media buzz from students than U.S. News.
“Their influence is waning, no question about it,” said Luke Skurman, chief executive of Niche. He said rankings are useful but not all-important. “Rankings are, in some regard, a relic of media companies,” Skurman said. “We’re a modern platform that does many things, but we’re not a media company.”
Cardona’s speech on Aug. 11 ridiculed what he called the “whole science behind climbing the rankings.” He derided competition among colleges for affluent students with high SAT scores, and efforts among elite schools to curry favor with peers, using “expensive dinners and lavish events” to score reputational survey points.
On Wednesday, Cardona confirmed that he had meant to zing U.S. News rankings and others that “prioritize prestige and exclusivity.” The federal government, he said, would rather spotlight colleges with other strengths.
“We are very serious about bringing attention to and providing support for those universities that take students that are struggling right now and give them an opportunity to succeed,” Cardona said.
How the rankings affect demand for selective colleges is unclear. Columbia is likely to draw tens of thousands of applications this year regardless of its rank. The university declined to answer questions about its ranking and whether cooperating with U.S. News is worth the trouble.
Villanova University’s provost, Patrick G. Maggitti, said the Catholic institution near Philadelphia drew significantly more interest from potential students after it was reclassified in 2016, from a master’s university to a doctoral research university. That led U.S. News to move Villanova from a regional list to a national one. It debuted in the top 50. Applications for 2017 rose more than 20 percent, Maggitti said. The school also reaped publicity benefits from an NCAA men’s basketball championship in 2016.
“We don’t play to the U.S. News ranking, but we’re not immune to looking at them,” Maggitti said. “It’s increased our recognition in the marketplace.”
Villanova suffered mild embarrassment this year when it disclosed to U.S. News that it had submitted erroneous information about its financial aid. The magazine in July temporarily removed Villanova from a “best value” list. Maggitti described the error as a “one-year blip.” This year Villanova ranks 51st overall among national universities.
Some schools rebel against U.S. News. Reed, a well-regarded liberal arts school, has long been known for boycotting the surveys. U.S. News ranks it anyway — now at 72nd among liberal arts colleges — using publicly available information. If Reed cooperated, experts say, it probably would rank higher.
A growing number of higher education leaders ignore a key part of the U.S. News ranking process: the reputational survey. In its 2011 edition of the rankings, U.S. News said 48 percent of those surveyed responded. The response rate is now 34 percent.
Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, a perennial rankings leader, said he is among those who skip the survey. When he was Princeton’s provost 15 years ago, Eisgruber said, he found himself wondering one day how to rate a very prominent Southern university he had never visited. “I felt utterly unqualified to make the judgment,” he said. He said he set the questionnaire aside and hasn’t filled one out since. Nor do Princeton’s current provost or admissions chief, the university said.
Gertler defended the survey, saying the data it yields is solid and worthy of inclusion. “Reputation is important,” he said. Employers care about it, he said, and so do faculty, parents and students.
Critics say seeking to measure reputation is an empty and self-perpetuating exercise. Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, said the U.S. News list has always been closely identified with powerful, private and highly selective universities. “Its reputation is protected by their reputation,” Glastris said, “and vice versa.”