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Articles / Applying to College / College Rankings Rant

College Rankings Rant

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Sept. 12, 2017

It's that time of year again. It seems like everyone is talking about the latest U.S News college rankings. You'll see the headlines in the newspaper and on the Internet. There will be brief stories on the evening news about who's #1 and maybe who rose or fell in the rankings. Blah, blah, blah.

In case you haven't already guessed from reading my past posts here and even in some of my articles on College Confidential, I am strongly opposed to the whole concept of rankings. In particular, I loathe the U.S. News' annual extravaganza because so many unknowing and unwitting high schoolers and families put stock in what's published there. Simply put, the whole rankings scam is self-serving and profit oriented. It's designed to sell magazines and other forms of subscriptions.

Save your time and money, people. Do your homework according to your needs and best matches, not those promoted by some mythical, self-appointed "oracle" of higher-ed wisdom. Some day I'll tell you how I really feel about all this. :-)

Anyway, if you're looking for reasons to avoid the black hole-like gravitational pull of the 'S.News rankings, I've found some for you and I'll share a few of them below.

First, though, I want to lead you to a search engine trove of information that supports my anti-ranking contentions. I use Google to search the Web, mainly because it's fast, thorough, and complete. Yeah, I know that in some cases I'm being exploited and steered into carefully controlled waters by Google, but I don't really care. I give my self enough credit to know when I'm being hustled (well, most of the time, anyway). So, I use Google.

In preparation for this post, I went to google and put in "college rankings nonsense." In return, I got the obligatory 6.02x10^23 hits in .000045 nanoseconds. (Is it any wonder that the two Google dudes are bazillionaires?) Anyway, take a look at the first page of links and consider some of these article titles:

Get the picture? I've chosen today to provide a glimpse of what I found to be the most appealing of these first-page Google finds: 14 Reasons Why US News College Rankings Are Meaningless. I'll give you a taste of my choice of a lucky seven's worth. First, though, here's the introduction from the article, which comes from LiberalArtsColleges.com:

Every year, US News and World Report releases its famous College Rankings lists, including “National Universities Rankings," “Liberal Arts Colleges Rankings," and about 50 more. Parents, high school guidance counselors, students, and even the colleges themselves eagerly await the rankings so they can brag and attempt to impress others with the numbers and hierarchies.

We're here to tell you that these lists from US News are useless.

Unproductive. Meaningless. Even harmful.

The hype seems to be unavoidable, but the wide audience that US News targets is largely unaware of the major flaws of these rankings. Not only are the metrics used to calculate arbitrary, but the resulting competitive, rankings-focused nature of colleges across the country is detrimental for students and institutions alike.

We want students, parents, and all those affected by the rankings turmoil to ignore these pointless lists in order improve their college application experience. It is time to expose the shortcomings. Here, we outline the main problems with the US News College Rankings, along with examples and consequences of the nonsense we're talking about.

The Major Problems with the US News College Rankings Are:

  1. They are inconsistent
  2. They are missing critical pieces of information
  3. They use a bogus “Reputation" measure
  4. They encourage cheating and schools game the system
  5. They lead to overall negative outcomes

Now, my magnificent seven from the 14. Remember, though, that these are LAColleges.com's contentions, not necessarily mine. You know, I'm making the ubiquitous disclaimer that views expressed on Admit This! that originate from outside sources are not always those of yours truly.

Reason #1 – Unstable rankings and irregular shifts continue to be a problem for US News.

People in higher ed have been complaining about these unreliable measures for over 20 years. Here is a personal letter from the president of Stanford University in 1996, directly criticizing the USNWR college rankings for their inconsistencies.

Reason #3 – Flawed metrics have persisted for over a decade.

This study, all the way back in 2002, offered constructive fixes for most of the flaws in the US News rankings, with suggestions for improved methodology and examples of better metrics to adopt. The same metrics flaws have persisted at US News for nearly 15 years, giving the impression of significant changes in quality year-to-year where there are none, and that the criticisms of those metrics are the same today as they were in 2002 – which means any changes in metrics aren't aimed at “improvement" in measurement, or if they are, the people working to improve them are not successfully doing so. In short, no. They have not fixed the problem.

Reason #6 – Failure to consider student debt load.

Student loans are an inevitable part of the college experience for many students, therefore student debt is as well. The US News college rankings, however, leave this measure out completely. They publish a “Short List" where you can find which schools will leave you with the most debt, but this is ultimately unhelpful when not factored into the overall rankings.

Reason #8 – The popularity contest.

Who is qualified to objectively measure reputation? The simple answer is no one. In this short statement, Richard F. Wilson, President of Illinois Wesleyan University, shares the Annapolis Group's 2007 decision to no longer respond to the reputation portion of the US News surveys. Wilson characterizes the group of 123 liberal arts colleges and universities as condemning the measure, saying, “There are very few presidents, provosts or admissions directors who feel they know enough about other institutions to rank them. Lacking an intimate knowledge of the impact that an institution has on its students, we resort to proxies like size of endowment or selectivity of the entering class to infer quality."

Reason #10 – When colleges refuse to participate, US News penalizes them.

When schools don't report their numbers, USNWR simply plugs in their own measures and assigns a lower rank… despite nothing actually changing on campus. Colin Dover, who has served as president at Reed College and Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, details his experience with the rankings, as a participant and a bystander.

Reason #12 – Schools know how to work the system… and they do.

In his article, Robert Woodbury describes 10 ways to climb up the rankings (and he proves how skewed they are in the process) and he says, “The ranking of colleges and universities by neat formulae and dubious statistical measures is distorting, illusory and, ultimately, harmful to democratic values we all share." This witty and brutally honest article speaks for itself and is worth the read.

Reason #13 – Rankings lead to higher tuition.

In this piece about George Washington University, the author connects the way the US News rankings reward financial resources spent per student, alumni donation, and other monetary metrics with the preferential shift toward wealthy applicants over middle-class or high-needs ones, and the pricing-out of less wealthy students. Aptly pointing out that the kinds of amenities US News privileges (an Olympic-sized swimming pool, co-ed sauna, juice bar, golf simulator, and climbing wall at the University of Pennsylvania) have to be paid for somehow, he connects recent tuition spikes to that capital spending — crowding out students who can't afford higher tuition or saddling them with ever-growing student loan debt, which shadows one's entire adult working career.


I hope these excerpts whet your appetite to consider all 14 reasons, as well as to check out some of the articles Google found for me. Just keep your head about you when those around you are screeching, "Temple just jumped up SEVEN spots on U.S. News!!!"

Do your part and send them to the 14 reasons. It's the reasonable thing to do.


Be sure to check out all my articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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