Why college rankings still fascinate us


Nearly 40 years ago, US News & World Report asked more than 1,300 college presidents to rate their peer institutions and published the results in its inaugural “Best College” rankings.

The easy-to-digest hierarchy of publishing-grade organizations – based solely on reputation – was an effort to best rival Time and Newsweek. It was very popular – “Best Colleges” soon became an annual feature and spawned an industry of college rankings.

Since that first list in 1983, the formula used by US News to calculate college rankings has evolved significantly, even for top schools. he continued the same. Despite mounting criticism of the methodology and criteria used by US News to assess an institution’s quality, as well as the emergence of other such lists, the annual publication of its rankings is an event in higher education, as seen last week.

The impact of the US News rankings is undeniable. Universities highlight their position in press releases and campus brochures, and indicate that they want to improve their positions in their strategic plans. Current students and alumni check the rankings to see how their school fared, and high school students consult them to determine which colleges to apply to.

“There’s an unhealthy ranking culture,” said Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Khan Lab School and co-author of “The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting and Staying Together.”

However, the ranking remains popular.

Today’s college application process is fraught with pressure and anxiety, and rankings feed off of it, experts say.

For a certain subset of high school students in middle- and upper-class communities, getting into a “good” school is the ultimate goal — as they load their schedules with rigorous AP classes, extracurricular activities, and SAT prep. What is considered a “good” school? Most often, these are Ivy League institutions and other prestigious universities, meaning schools that perform well in US News rankings and similar lists.

With elite colleges increasingly difficult to get into, getting a spot at one is a status symbol, Barnard said. It comes with bragging rights, and it opens doors to opportunities that might not otherwise be available. Sometimes it can encourage people to get their children into a desirable school. Perhaps the best example of this is the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal, which involved wealthy parents, including Hollywood actors, trying to get their children into prestigious institutions through fraudulent means.

“We live in a brand-obsessed society, so there’s a bit of fear and a bit of ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ built in,” Barnard said.

Research suggests that rankings can affect where and how competitive freshman classes are for students to enter college. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Educational Research Association found that colleges ranked in the top 25 of the US News rankings saw a 6% to 10% increase in applications.

And in a survey of freshmen in 2019, 15% of respondents called the ranking “very important” to their choice of school. While that number may seem small, Barnard said the rankings may have more of an impact than many students and families realize.

“I don’t think we’re always honest with ourselves about how much weight we put on the rankings,” he added.

Not everyone with an eye on the rankings is obsessed with the situation, however.

What college a student attends is looming as one of the most important decisions a young person will make, and now that it comes at such a high price, students and families want to make sure they’re making the smartest investment.

Navigating the college admissions process, however, can be overwhelming and few families have the resources to channel it, Barnard said. Only a third of public high schools have a counselor dedicated to college counseling, and the shortage is even worse at schools with high poverty rates, Education Week reported in 2018.

“With this information overload and left to their own devices, families don’t know where to start,” Barnard said. “So they default to this third-party system to tell them what’s good and what’s not.”

Princeton University has been ranked number one in this year's US News rankings.

Students and families turn to the rankings to narrow down hundreds of potential colleges and universities and identify which ones are worth applying to, said Robert Kelchen, professor and chair of Knoxville University’s department of educational leadership and policy studies. He is also the data editor at Washington Monthly, which publishes an alternative college ranking that rewards social mobility, research and public service.

The problem is that the US News rankings (which remain the most popular for being the longest) are based in part on criteria like selectivity and popularity, which may not suit the needs of most students, Kelchen said. In other words, while they offer simple, attractive consequences, they are not one-size-fits-all.

Bob Morse, the chief data strategist who developed much of the US News rankings methodology, previously told CNN that the rankings are valuable to students and families, who provide data and information to help inform their college searches. He also said that outcomes – such as graduation rates and social mobility – now account for 40% of a school’s grade. But Kelchen still sees limits.

“US News ‘How Do You Get the Best Out of a Single Student?’ and getting a student into an Ivy is a wonderful thing,” Kelchen said. “But thinking more broadly about the public good, there are so few places in the Ivies that it’s also important to identify colleges that do a really good job of advancing students in life.”

In today’s hyper-competitive, status-driven society, it’s perhaps no surprise that the US News rankings hold such a hold on students and colleges: they speak to students’ aspirations to get ahead. Attending a top school provides a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, as well as a level of advantage. On some level, this appeal will always remain.

But there are signs of a cultural shift. Higher education policymakers and practitioners have been dismissive of the US News rankings for years, though that sentiment hasn’t fully spilled over to students and families.

“There is a growing recognition of the importance of secondary value,” said Piper Hendricks, vice president for communications and external affairs at the Higher Education Policy Institute. “I hope that momentum continues and that it gets to the point where families and students and individuals are really able to make decisions based on the answers they deserve.”

Barnard encourages students and families to dig deeper into the data (or lack thereof) on which the US News rankings and similar lists are based, and to explore alternatives that might better reflect their values. Degree Options and Third Way, for example, are based on schools offering a greater chance for financial success.

“What we need is more detail, and for families to really understand what the secret sauce of the classification methodology is,” he added.

Classifications, by design, provide simple answers to a complex decision. But if people consult them, Barnard and others said, they might find out about it.