What’s Actually Behind the U.S. News Rankings of “Best Colleges”?

While high school seniors are anxiously waiting to hear about college acceptances, their younger classmates are now embarking on the college search adventure. A source that inevitably pops up early in the process is the U.S. News & World Report rankings of “Best Colleges”. These rankings have become widely quoted and wildly popular. But what’s actually behind them and what do they tell you? Here is some behind-the-scenes insight into how the rankings are calculated and what that means when evaluating colleges.

We all love Top 10 lists, and rankings can be a helpful shorthand when researching colleges. Schools at the top of the U.S. News rankings are typically considered to be among the best colleges and universities in the country. However, whether a school is ranked #8 or #18 or #88 doesn’t tell you what’s best for an individual student.

As Jeffrey Brenzel, former dean of admissions at Yale, noted: “Rankings tend to ignore the very criteria that may be most important to an applicant, such as specific academic offerings, intellectual and social climate, ease of access to faculty, international opportunities, and placement rates for careers or for graduate and professional school.”

Robert L. Woodbury, former chancellor of the University of Maine, compared the annual “America's Best Colleges" publication from U.S. News & World Report to the Swimsuit Issue from Sports Illustrated. “Both succeed because they are sexy, glamorous, superficial and largely without redeeming social value.”

Saving the Swimsuit Issue for another day, let’s take a look at what’s actually behind the U.S. News college rankings. For 2015, a total of 1,376 colleges and universities were ranked on seven dimensions. Here are the dimensions in order of importance along with their weights, as disclosed by US News:

  1. Academic Reputation – 22.5% assessments by peer institutions and high school counselors

  2. Student Retention – 22.5% based on graduation rates and the percentage of first-year students that return

  3. Faculty Resources – 20% including student/faculty ratio, class size and faculty salaries

  4. Student Selectivity – 12.5% SAT/ACT test scores, class ranking and acceptance rates

  5. Financial Resources – 10% a measure of spending per student

  6. Graduation Rate Performance – 7.5% a U.S. News metric of predicted vs. actual performance

  7. Alumni Giving Rate – 5% a proxy for alumni satisfaction

The U.S. News rankings frequently come under heavy fire from critics, and justifiably so. Start with the obvious: what's "best" for one student is not the right match for another. And relying on a single number to represent what a college offers is superficial at best. Digging deeper, additional concerns include: The criteria are self-reported and easily manipulated by the colleges themselves. The most heavily-weighted factor -- academic reputation as assessed by other college leaders -- is basically a subjective popularity contest among peers who are usually too busy running their own institution to really know what’s happening inside many others across the country. Fewer than 50% of the surveys sent to college administrators by U.S. News are even returned.

Also, the rankings focus on “inputs” not “outcomes”. Student satisfaction with their college experience is not a factor, other than retention rate which is about as low as you can set the bar. Ditto for satisfaction of alumni, other than the percentage that donate money which could be more a reflection of the school's fundraising prowess. Job or graduate school placement is also not considered, nor is any other measure of success after graduation.

What's more, colleges can manipulate their rankings if they are so inclined. Attract more applicants so you can reject a higher percentage and appear more selective… Spend more money then raise tuition to pay for it (spending is rewarded but cost is not considered)… Become test-optional so that only your highest-scoring applicants will choose to report SAT/ACT scores… Hire more senior faculty at higher salaries, even if they spend their time on research and publishing rather than teaching undergraduates... Increase your PR budget so that college presidents at your peer institutions continue to rate you highly. Because much of this data is self-reported, some colleges have even been caught providing false data to improve their rankings.

So it may be interesting and somewhat helpful to know if a school is ranked in the top 100 or top 50 or top 20, but recognize what the rankings do and don't consider. And don't sweat the difference between #29 and #39.

Where does this leave a high school student trying to find his or her way to a successful college match? Go beyond the rankings to identify which schools will be a good fit academically, socially, geographically and financially for your individual situation. Dig deeply into what matters to you and what specific colleges provide. Research schools online and visit campuses in person to find those that will be both challenging and comfortable. Consider costs and the availability of financial aid. Talk with current students and college experts who can give you the straight scoop.

Ogle the rankings if you want, but remember that beauty is more than skin deep.

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