What's happening with college rankings?

Posted on 22nd February 2023

What's happening with college rankings?

College rankings have the potential to be useful signposts to advisors and students. However, rankings have been in the news recently as institutions and students call them into question. What’s happening with rankings, and will undergraduate institutions move away from them?

The best known ranking tables in the U.S. are the ones created by the U.S. News and World Report. Two podcasts from Malcolm Gladwell examine how the U.S News college rankings are actually calculated. One factor that informs a college’s ranking is the peer assessment score. One aspect of this involves a survey ranking a college from one to five, filled in by the President, Provost, and Dean of Admissions at other, similar, colleges. In Gladwell’s interview with Robert Morse, who runs the US News rankings, Morse admits that he doesn’t know if those filling in the surveys are fully informed about all the schools they’re rating. Usually, the peer assessors would base their survey response on their idea of a college, gleaned from a general impression of its reputation and not from first-hand experience.

Half of the peer assessment score, additionally, has to do with the size of a college’s endowment – a factor that, like the survey, does not necessarily relate to student experience. In the second of his two podcasts, Gladwell looks even more closely at US News’ rankings, revealing how they can embed privilege further into the admissions process, and work to the detriment of colleges like the HBCU Dillard University.

In November 2022, Harvard and Yale’s law schools decided to stop participating in the US News rankings. As of December 2022, 11 law schools had followed suit. Reasons the colleges gave for this schism were that rankings could detract from efforts to recruit lower-income students and give them need-based financial aid (which Gladwell also pointed out), and discourage students from going into public service law careers (which can be less lucrative than those at large firms). 

Twenty percent of a law school’s overall ranking is based on grades and test scores, and in a New York Times article, Yale Law’s dean Heather Gerken comments on what could happen if law schools abandoned rankings. “This heavily weighted metric imposes tremendous pressure on schools to overlook promising students, especially those who cannot afford expensive test preparation courses [...] It also pushes schools to use financial aid to recruit high-scoring students.” 

Rankings have had other recent controversies too. In summer 2022, Columbia dropped by 16 places in the US News and World Report, due to inaccurate data challenged by one of its own math professors. In late December 2022, USC was sued by former students over false rankings of its education school. As with what happened at Columbia, the suit cited flawed metrics (the submission of PhD student data over Ed.D student data), which resulted in higher rankings.

In January 2023, Harvard medical school announced that it would also leave the rankings; the dean said that he had been wanting to do this for years, and was inspired to finally do so by the law schools’ decision. As of 24 January, Stanford, Columbia, Penn, and Mount Sinai had also followed suit.

The above incidents have highlighted some valid reasons to move away from reliance on rankings. Doing so can help recruit a more diverse student body, encourage graduates to work in careers that give back to the wider community (therefore enhancing universities’ contribution to wider society and to promoting social equality), help prospective students make more informed choices by avoiding flawed data that produces misleading rankings, and give other excellent universities a fair chance at recruiting students. 

In January, U.S. News & World Report announced that it would change how it ranks law schools, in response to the many such institutions that decided to leave the rankings. According to Inside Higher Ed and The Guardian, the changes include less weight on peer assessment surveys and more weight on outcome measure, and full weight given to fellowships (which help students pursue work in public service careers). They are also working on other factors, such as loan forgiveness/loan assistance repayment programs, need-based aid, and diversity and socio-economic considerations, which will require additional time and collaboration to address. Further details of the changes should be available in the spring of 2023, closer to the time of the publication of the law school rankings. The ABA is considering test-optional policies for law schools, which could further impact the rankings process.

Will undergraduate rankings follow suit? A recent Inside Higher Ed article looks back at the history of challenges to rankings, showing us this isn’t a new controversy: the liberal arts college Reed was the first to leave the rankings in the 1990s (you can read about their reasons for doing so here). Another challenge to the rankings came from Lloyd Thacker, an ex-college counsellor who wrote Colleges Unranked in the early 2000s.

Amongst the reasons Colin Diver, previous president of Reed, gave for leaving the rankings were that colleges think young people need more guidance and therefore rely upon the rankings, but law school applicants are more mature and informed, and that law applicants may be more concerned about social fairness. 

These reasons seem quite specific to law schools, and the current mood amongst undergraduate colleges seems to support this: it doesn’t seem that they are considering abandoning the rankings en masse any time soon. U.S. News seems set to continue with the rankings of undergraduate colleges, at least for the time being.

So how should you, as a student or parent, think about rankings in the pursuit of a good college education? In some ways it’s understandable why you might look to rankings like U.S. News for some guidance: in a crowded educational market, the sheer number of options can be confusing. Highly selective colleges are often seen as luxury “brands” and families as “shoppers". This gives hyper-selective colleges the opportunity to reinforce their status as elite institutions.

However, the problem with this is two-fold: firstly, the rankings mean that highly selective institutions aggregate so much attention that their admit rates are often in the low single digits. So basing your college choices only on the top-ranked colleges is a very risky strategy. Secondly, by focusing only on rankings you might be overlooking those brilliant colleges, like Reed College and St John’s College, that offer a remarkable education that is on a par with – and perhaps better than – their more highly ranked peer institutions.

What we encourage our students to do is to look at alternative groupings such as the Colleges That Change Lives and College Express. And we then encourage students to create their own rankings defining what they are looking for from the college experience, in which academic and community fit should play a central part. By taking ownership of your college choices, you are putting yourself in the driving seat and are therefore likely to make better choices that set you up for a successful undergraduate experience.

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