A guide to what college rankings don't tell you.

The Problem with College Rankings

College rankings are ubiquitous these days. Parents, presidents, and prospective students obsess over them, they help sell countless magazines, and they generate millions of clicks for profit-driven corporations. Unfortunately, the major rankings systems all share the same major flaw:  they are ambivalent to what schools are teaching and whether students are learning anything of value. Worse, they help drive the cost of college up and academic standards down.  

“Rankings systems generally use data that are easy to gather, not necessarily data that are the most meaningful.”
—Challenge Success, Stanford University

College Rankings Force Institutions to Focus on Prestige Instead of Learning

With so many schools vying for high school seniors’ attention, it’s no surprise families are hungry for information that will help them navigate the college search. The growing number of college rankings purport to help. But what they measure has little to do with what colleges teach; how well they prepare students for career, community, and citizenship; or what students actually learn.

Because college rankings are so influential, however—both in increasing institutional prestige and in driving student applications—colleges and universities allocate resources with ranking criteria in mind. The effect is: institutions spend more money in places that do little if anything to improve the quality of a student's education. We even hear of schools that make rising in the rankings a priority in their strategic plans.

Most ranking systems divert energy, attention, and resources away from the instructional mission of colleges and universities. The problem is that rankings are easy to digest and speak to the natural human desire for prestige and importance. But these rankings reward all the wrong investments and priorities, with results that have distorted the higher education marketplace. 

For example, the U.S. News rankings model attributes more weight to “undergraduate academic reputation” than to any other sub-category. Reputation is driven largely by name recognition and public relations successes—whether it’s high school counselors or senior administrators responding to the surveys. This means that colleges and universities that compete in NCAA Division 1 athletics conferences, or that have long and storied histories, or that build cutting edge research centers, or that spend lavishly on communications and marketing, can drive up their ranking—all without giving a thought to what goes on in the classroom. 

“U.S. News fixates on how selective a school is . . . not on what happens once students arrive at their schools. That's like judging a hospital by how sick the patients are when they arrive.”
—Lynn O'Shaughnessy, CBS NEWS, MoneyWatch

College Rankings Hurt Low-Income and Minority Students 

Studies have repeatedly shown that rankings systems bend the higher education marketplace to the disadvantage of students from families of lower financial means. Schools feel incentives to shift resources away from need-based aid in order to improve their ranking by "buying" high-achieving students regardless of financial need. This can leave behind deserving students who graduated high school with good, rather than excellent, SAT and ACT scores. As a Politico Magazine feature documented in 2017, the rankings system encourages universities to overlook students from low-income families and minority backgrounds. Thus, an instrument ostensibly created to rank colleges and universities has the practical effect of undermining one of their most important functions in American society: the promotion of socio-economic mobility.

At a time when we should all be concerned about the financial efficiency of higher education, U.S. News rankings certainly don't reward for that . . .  It's so troubling to me." 
—Carol Christ, chancellor of University of California-Berkeley

College Rankings Drive the Cost of College Up and Standards Down

The U.S. News & World Report rankings also reward institutions that have high per student expenditures—no matter what they are spending money on. Their method of calculating “financial resources per student” counts "resources expended." This encourages bloated administrations and the building of new infrastructure, as well as the attendant maintenance and operations costs. That is to say, it makes no distinction between spending categories that have little to do with what goes on in the classroom and expenditures directly related to high-quality instruction. Universities that spend millions subsidizing their NCAA athletics programs also benefit in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, while those that deliver a high-quality education efficiently—working to steward students’ tuition dollars responsibly and to minimize graduates’ debt loads—are penalized for it.  

As academic hiring at most prestigious institutions puts heavy emphasis on research, often at the cost of dedicated teaching, the rankings system rewards institutions that recruit expensive research faculty who may spend negligible time in the classroom. It’s little wonder that F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, told Politico he thinks “U.S. News has done more damage to the higher education marketplace than any single enterprise that's out there.”  

As a result of the rankings game, families are paying more and more for an education that is worth less and less. Surveys of employers have repeatedly shown rising dissatisfaction with the skills and knowledge of recent college graduates. The most common complaints: Graduates lack the ability critically to assess complicated subject matter; they have trouble communicating effectively, verbally and in writing; and they lack intercultural fluency. Similarly, studies have repeatedly shown that alarmingly high proportions of students—even those studying at the most selective institutions—make negligible gains on critical thinking assessments. Alumni satisfaction surveys have shown that those who report feeling best prepared for the workforce, and who have the strongest positive retrospective evaluations of their campus experience, are those who believe they were challenged academically. 

Rankings systems should be designed to pull against these trends by penalizing institutions that spend wastefully and allow curricula to erode. Unfortunately, the most popular rankings systems do the opposite, and accelerate many of the worst trends. 

“Little evidence suggests that selectivity is related to measures of students' self-reported gains in learning, let alone verbal, quantitative, or subject-matter competence measured by standardized tests. This finding, which has been consistent over the past 40 to 50 years, has implications for college choice, family finances, and public policy . . .”
—Matthew Mayhew et al., How College Affects Students

Learn More About College Rankings

Robert Morse and Eric Brooks, "Best Colleges Ranking Criteria and Weights," USNews.com, September 9, 2018.

Benjamin Wermund, "How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus," Politico Magazine, September 10, 2017.

Challenge Success, "A 'Fit' Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity," October, 2018.

Valerie Strauss, "U.S. News changed the way it ranks colleges. It's still ridiculous," The Washington Post, September 12, 2018.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, "15 Things to Know About U.S. News' College Rankings," The College Solution, May 8, 2018.

Robert Kelchen, "Beware of Dubious College Rankings," Washington Monthly, September 14, 2018.

Tommy Tran, "Academic Rigor Linked to Alumni Perceptions of College Value," Gallup Blog, February 26, 2018.

Stephanie Marken, "A Crisis of Confidence in Higher Ed," Gallup Blog, April 12, 2019.

Valerie Strauss, "The Problem with the 2018 U.S. News rankings:  Junk in, junk out," The Washington Post, September 12, 2017.

Ry Rivard, "Rankings Noise:  What would it really take to be in the 'U.S. News' Top 20?," Inside Higher Ed., June 3, 2019.

Robert Morse, "U.S. News Responds to Politico's Critique of Best Colleges," USNews.com, September 13, 2017.

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