US News College Rankings Are Out, So Are the Critics

By Bill McGuire

Sep 10, 2013 2:52pm
gty princeton university ll 130910 16x9 608 US News College Rankings Are Out, So Are the Critics

Students walk on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Aug. 30, 2013. Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The latest annual ranking of U.S. News & World Report’s best colleges landed today, and they’re remarkable not for the horse race they seek to portray, but the bile they engender among critics.

The Washington Post’s piece, titled “Why U.S. News college rankings shouldn’t matter to anyone,” takes apart the rankings as a useless beauty contest based on arbitrary criteria put together by the website’s editors.

This year, the article notes, the rankings reduced “the weight of input factors that reflect a school’s student body” and increased “the weight of output measures that signal how well a school educates its students.”

The result is that the most subjective and easily manipulated criteria still get the biggest weight.

CBS Marketwatch cuts into the rankings further, listing five reasons why they should be ignored. Among them, the writer argues, such rankings hurt middle- and lower-income students.

‘”Schools care deeply about inching up U.S. News’ college rankings and this is reflected in how they spend their money,” Marketwatch says. “Institutions have been focused on devoting more of their revenue to attract students with higher test scores, class rankings and grade-point averages.

“That’s to impress the rankings king. Consequently, public and private colleges and universities have been pouring a growing amount of money into merit scholarships for affluent students at the expense of students who desperately need financial help.”

A story on the Atlantic’s website today carped that “U.S. News is always tinkering with the metrics they use, so meaningful comparisons from one year to the next are hard to make. Critics also allege that this is as much a marketing move as an attempt to improve the quality of the rankings: changes in the metrics yield slight changes in the rank orders, which induces people to buy the latest rankings to see what’s changed.”

It concludes: “The whole exercise implies a sort of authoritative precision and rigor that impart real meaning to the rankings, but that it is simply nonsense to say that, for example, Duke ‘ranks higher’ than Johns Hopkins or that Middlebury should rank 13 spots higher than Wesleyan.”

For the record, U.S. News cut the weighing of high school class rank by half this year and cranked up the weight given to ACT and SAT scores, even though more colleges are deemphasizing such scores.

Now, student input factors account for 12.5 percent of a college’s score, down from 15 percent last year. The editors also pumped up the importance of a school’s six-year graduation rate to 30 percent of the score.

The result was a slight reshuffling of the national colleges, to wit:

No. 1 Princeton University
No. 2 Harvard University
No. 3 Yale University
No. 4 Columbia University
No. 5 Stanford University
No. 5 University of Chicago
No. 7 Duke University
No. 7 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
No. 7 University of Pennsylvania
No. 10 California Institute of Technology
No. 10 Dartmouth College

Note that the rankings are so precise there is even a three-way tie.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, told Inside Higher Education the changes didn’t address a broken system. “Well-intentioned people have lobbied U.S. News for years to make changes to encourage more of an emphasis on educational values,” he said. “I’m skeptical this changes anything. Ordinal rankings are fundamentally flawed.”

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