The U.S. News College Rankings are the most recognized and popular of all college rankings. Indeed, they are the most popular feature of that publication. U.S. News has tried to protect this valuable franchise by attempting to keep improving the ratings methodology. They have tried to address some of the flaws of the rankings identified by critics; this has sometimes resulted in major year-to-year shifts for individual schools.
College Confidential Comments: The U.S. News rankings are most useful for the wealth of statistics that accompany them. The reader can quickly compare schools by SAT scores, class size, retention, acceptance rates, alumni contribution rates, and many more statistics. Although the numbers aren't always perfect, this annual report is certainly one of the best ways to find this data in one place.
The 2009 edition of the U.S. News College Rankings requires puchasing a "premium online" edition in order to access full data for each school. However, visitors can take advantage of several free features, including side-by-side comparisons of up to five schools, and participation in school-specific discussion forums.
Although the U.S. News annual rankings survey has become one of the most popular sources for basic information about colleges, its overall value has been the source of a much-heated debate for the last several years. Many colleges have tried to discount the survey's findings, most often when their school's rankings slip.
Alma College, a small private school in Central Michigan, caused a stir a few years ago when then-president Alan Stone wrote to every college president and admissions dean to ask that they join Alma in boycotting the survey. A few colleges did respond, causing U.S. News to make special note of those schools that indicated they would no longer participate. Also, Dr. Bernard Lentz, a professor at Ursinus College in the late 1990s developed a ranking system of his own by using measures such as graduation rate instead of the more-vague "academic reputation" used by U.S. News. His assumption was that specific, measurable, college-selected outcomes of a college degree ought to be the focus of a ranking instead of relatively arbitrary criteria picked by a magazine publisher.
The bottom-line consideration for students and parents should be: "What overall impact does the U.S. News survey actually have on the college search and selection process?" One of the best measures of the impact of the U.S. News rankings came from a national study conducted in 1995 by Arts & Sciences Group, Inc. In a study called studentPoll, whose advisory panel included deans and directors from schools such as Princeton, Duke, Bucknell, NYU, Rutgers, and Macalester College, a number of findings revealed some surprises:
1. Among students who use them, the value of the newsmagazine rankings in college choice is far lower than that of other major sources of information and advice.
2. Students use newsmagazine rankings of colleges far less than other major sources of information that influence college choice.
3. The overall impact of newsmagazine rankings on college choice is among the lowest of all major sources of information and choice.
4. Most students who have not read the rankings consider them essentially worthless-of lower value than other communications tools.
5. While overall awareness of the U.S. News rankings is higher than that of other sources of information, such as Peterson's and Barron's guides, the perceived reliability of the information in U.S. News is rated lower.
6. For students who use the rankings, they serve largely to validate and inform pre-existing college interest and evaluations.
In a parent's focus group in 1997, parents were asked to talk candidly about the use and overall value of the rankings. One parent summed up an insight shared by all the parents: "When we first bought the magazine, we tried to look at schools according to the rankings. However, when we visited the campuses, we were dismayed to find out that the initial perceptions we had formed because of the survey were dispelled by the reality that what we experienced upon visiting was different than what we were lead to believe from the magazine. In particular, we note that for those schools that had a sidebar story, or were featured in an expansive way, the perception of what we were led to believe and the actual quality, feel, or overall prestige of the school were far below the hype."
Overall, we caution our readers to think twice about letting a magazine decide what's important for all Americans when it comes to criteria for college selection. In the end, we've noticed that students and parents start out using the magazine rankings to inform themselves, but in the end these rankings have little overall value in the final selection process. Because of this, we give the U.S. News & World Report rankings a "B-" for making a big splash at first, with little real, residual value in the final analysis. (By all means, though, take advantage of the statistical data they collect!)