Admissions season at colleges and universities across the United States is quickly approaching. Soon every higher education institution will be mailing decision letters to applicants, and campuses will be overrun with prospective students and their ambitious parents for the ubiquitous spring visit days.
It is not uncommon this time of year to hear mention of college rankings. Admissions brochures and other promotional literature at colleges and universities will play up favorable performance in rankings. Students and their parents will use rankings, along with a host of other factors, to determine institutional quality and, perhaps more importantly, prestige. In the end, that’s what rankings are all about for institutions and prospective students: the pursuit of prestige.
College rankings emerged in the 1980s as a result of the accountability movement and have grown in popularity since then. Today, a cottage industry has developed around rankings. The annual rankings produced by U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) are the most popular, influential, authoritative, and—perhaps because of the preceding attributes—critiqued rankings in the business. USNWR’s annual “Best Colleges” issue sells 2.2 million copies, reaching an estimated 11 million readers. Together with the more detailed guidebook, USNWR publications account for almost half of the college rankings market.Many students and parents see the USNWR rankings as a way to sort through the massive number of higher education institutions in the United States, as well as a way to compare colleges and universities. The problem is that USNWR rankings actually provide remarkably little in the way of useful information to students and parents. Here’s a list of 10 research-informed reasons why anyone interested in learning about higher education institutions should disregard the USNWR rankings. I include at the end of the list references and resources for further reading.
1. They falsely claim to be objective.
USNWR uses numerical information and statistics to convey objectivity. However, their methodology of ranking colleges and universities is based upon weights subjectively assigned to seven criteria the editors believe to be measures of institutional quality: academic reputation, student selectivity, faculty resources, graduation and retention rates, financial resources, alumni giving, and graduation rate performance. Bob Morse, who is in charge of USNWR’s rankings, has explained that what they do is not based upon social science research. Rather, it is part of USNWR’s “consumer journalism.” However, at no point do they acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of their methodology—the legitimacy of the publication rests upon its perceived authority.
2. They base 25% of the rankings on academic reputation.
At first blush, this seems fairly straightforward. An institution’s academic reputation should be taken into consideration. The issue is that USNWR captures academic reputation through a survey mailed to presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions. They are asked in this survey to vote using a Likert scale on the colleges and universities with the best academic reputation. In some instances, this has the effect of rubber stamping into the top of the hierarchy those institutions with a historic and cultural association with prestige. When academic reputation surveys are sent out to deans of particular departments for USNWR’s more program-specific rankings, this undoubtedly affects their voting patterns. One commonly cited study showed, for example, that law school leaders ranked Princeton’s law school as one of the best in the country—even though it closed in the 19th century. In other instances, campus leaders try to vote out the competition. One administrator at my university admitted to giving our institution a 1 on the academic reputation survey, and all other schools a 3.
3. They place too much emphasis on the profile of applicants.
The criterion that probably receives the most attention from students deals with selectivity. Receiving 15% of the total in weighting, student selectivity includes the percentage of applicants admitted, the yield rate, the number of in-coming students in the top 10% of their class, and the average SAT or ACT of entering freshmen. Aside from the possible positive benefits of being in class with other talented students, this criterion conveys no information about the institution or the quality of education offered there. It essentially tells students how much they will pay to sit next to others who are of a similar academic caliber. Additionally, many institutions have difficulty accurately reporting student selectivity data. For example, most high schools in the state of Maryland do not rank students. In order to report how many students were in the top 10% of their class, many colleges and universities must extrapolate based upon a formula.
4. They are of questionable validity.
Webster (2001) concluded that average SAT/ACT score of in-coming students is the criterion that most affects an institution’s rank. Kuh and Pascarella (2004) repeated and confirmed Webster’s test, demonstrating that “for all practical purposes, U.S. News rankings of best colleges can largely be reproduced simply by knowing the average SAT/ACT scores of their students” (p. 53). This means that, despite USNWR using student selectivity measures as proxy indicators of quality, the two are largely unrelated. Dichev (2001) sought to discern the validity of USNWR rankings by looking at the predictability of changes over time. Her logic was that a “good” ranking should not change in predictable ways. Yet she discovered that between 70 and 80 percent of variation in rankings is transitory, changes are likely to reverse within two cycles, and most of the changes are due to aggregated noise in underlying components.
5. They encourage prestige-seeking behaviors.
The prestige that accompanies performing well in the USNWR rankings also helps colleges and universities attract gifted students and resources in the form of grants and donations. Given that state appropriations have reached a 10-year low, these resources are increasingly important. Thus, institutions striving for prestige often emphasize graduate over undergraduate education. They also prioritize research, particularly in areas where the knowledge can be commercialized. Faculty are expected to win competitive grants and publish research, meaning adjuncts and graduate assistants shoulder much of the teaching. In other words, the pursuit of prestige has the potential to undermine the teaching mission of colleges and universities.
6. They promote institutional isomorphism.
Institutional diversity has been a defining feature of American higher education. We have many different types of people seeking higher learning, so it makes sense to make many different types of institutions. However, rankings are causing competitive comparison, which results in institutions, over time, coming to resemble one another. Consider a liberal arts college that falls in the middle of the USNWR rankings. They look to those schools within their field of play and develop a list of “aspirational peers” from which to borrow ideas and practices. Scholars have thus likened the U.S. higher education system to a snake. The head represents prestigious schools, the body represents the prestige-seeking schools, and the tail represents those schools attempting to minimally increase their reputation. The body, then, follows the head, and the tail follows the body. Not all institutions can or should be research one institutions. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying.
7. They create a positional arms race.
The essence of an arms race is that there is no absolute goal, only the relative goal of staying ahead of other competitors. This makes it difficult to leave the race, and it means there is no finish line. Colleges and universities simply continue competing against one other to secure a relatively better position in the USNWR rankings. Repositioning oneself usually requires that institutions spend more or charge less, and both options necessitate additional non-tuition resources. Most competition takes the form of increased spending, especially on amenities like dining halls, gymnasiums, and residence halls. Positional competition caused by rankings, therefore, increases the cost of higher education.
8. They make institutions less accessible.
Monks and Ehrenberg (1999) were interested in how changes in USNWR rankings among elite schools changed their admissions practices and pricing policies. According to their study, an improvement in rank means an institution is more selective, offers less grant money to students, and experiences an increase in the average SAT score of applicants. Meredith (2004) corroborated these findings. Several observers have also noted that institutions have turned to early-decision applications as a means of improving yield rate. Early-decision applicants tend to be those students from families that can easily say “yes” if offered admission to a university without having to shop around for the best financial aid package. As follows, the early-decision application process advantages upper and middle-income students.
9. They are unrelated to activities that contribute to learning.
Questions surround the relationship between USNWR rankings and the extent to which an institution promotes activities that contribute to learning. Pike (2004) measured the strength of the relationship between the USNWR criteria and five benchmarks of the National Survey of Student Engagement. In short, Pike’s analysis revealed that, with the exception of students at selective institutions reporting enriching educational experiences, USNWR criteria and NSSE benchmarks are unrelated.
10. They have caused unethical behaviors.
There is a great deal of pressure placed on administrators to improve, or at least maintain, USNWR rankings. This pressure has caused some administrators to report false information or manipulate the numbers for personal and/or institutional gain. There have been repeated stories in the media about such cases, the most recent of which involved George Washington University and Tulane University’s business school.
These 10 reasons provide sufficient justification to shrug off the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. Next time you see the newest “Best Colleges” issue at your grocery store, walk by it as you would a tabloid. If a friend posts the rankings to Facebook, give the link a confident “dislike.” Most importantly, encourage students not to make their college choice based upon these rankings. Instead, push them to visit campuses and seek out alternative rankings, such as the one created by Washington Monthly, which accounts for how an institutions contribute to the public good. The reality is that the only people benefiting from the USNWR rankings is the corporation profiting from them.
For Reference and ReadingDichev, I. (2001). News or noise? Estimating the noise in the U.S. News university rankings.
Research in Higher Education, 42, 237-266.
Ehrenberg, R. G. (2003). Reaching for the brass ring: The U.S. News and World Report rankings and competition. The Review of Higher Education, 26(2), 145-162.Kuh, G. D. & Pascarella, E. T. (2004). What does institutional selectivity tell us about educational quality? Change, 36(5), 52-58.
Meredith, M. (2004). Why do universities compete in the ratings game? An empirical analysis of the effects of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. Research in Higher Education, 45(5), 443-461.
Monks, J. & Ehrenberg, R. G. (1999). U.S. News & World Report rankings: Why they do matter.
Change, 31(6), 43-51.
O’Meara, K. (2007). Striving for what? Exploring the pursuit of prestige. J.C. Smart (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. XXII, 121-179.
Pike, G. R. (2004). Measuring quality: A comparison of U.S. News rankings and NSSE
benchmarks. Research in Higher Education, 45(2), 193-208.
Webster, D. S. (1992). Reputational rankings of colleges, universities, and individual disciplines and fields of study, from their beginnings to the present. Higher Education Handbook of Theory and Research: Vol. VIII, 234-304.Webster, T. J. (2001). A principal component analysis of the U.S. News & World Report tier
rankings of colleges and universities. Economics of Education Review 20, 235-244.