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Articles / Admissions / The U.S.News College Rankings

May 21, 2020

The U.S.News College Rankings

I suppose rankings serve a purpose. When you have well over 3,000 four-year, degree-granting institutions of higher learning available from which to choose, inevitably, you'll discover that some are better than others. I guess we need a kind of Consumer Reports resource to help us sift through the piles of glossy literature that pours forth from these schools. Many can seem much the same as all the others, so I imagine we need some kind of sorting protocol. That's what the U.S.News rankings claim to do.

Can you tell that I'm not a rankings kinda guy? If you can, you're perceptive. All I have to do is look at the new U.S. News rankings and see that Harvard scores a "100" to claim the #1 spot. Poor Princeton. At #2, it could muster a mere "99" score. Old Nassau students and alums worldwide mourn. Not really, because the overwhelming majority of those associated with Princeton and Harvard couldn't care less about what U.S.News thinks of them. Well, maybe their (and all the other ranked schools') marketing people give pause for good or bad thought, but in most cases, these rankings (and most of the others) inspire a large, lazy yawn.

Where do you want to go to college? Where does your school rank on this list? Disappointed? Happy? Why do you feel either way?

Let's take a look at what some others, both experts and regular people, have to say about the U.S.News rankings.

Here is an opinion from College Confidential's Sally Rubenstone, who was interviewed by The Daily Pennsylvanian:

Penn falls one spot in rankings

Penn dropped from fourth to fifth place in U.S. News and World Report's university rankings, released Tuesday.

For the second year, the University shared its placing with Stanford University. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, also tied with Penn for fourth place in last year's rankings, have dropped to share seventh place.

Now occupying fourth place is Columbia University. Harvard University is ranked first, Princeton University second and Yale University third.

Williams College stayed ahead of Amherst College a second time in the category of liberal arts colleges.

U.S. News and World Report's rankings first divide schools based on their mission: liberal arts college or research university. Schools are rated in sixteen areas relating to academic excellence, and are then placed into tiers based on their total score.

“Ranking colleges can indeed serve some useful purpose for parents and students trying to select schools," according to College Confidential senior advisor Sally Rubenstone. However, Rubenstone also wrote in an e-mail that ranking universities has “turn[ed] up the heat in the college-admissions pressure cooker," making the process far more stressful.

Head of Hernandez College Consulting Michele Hernandez wrote in an e-mail that since U.S. News and World Report created a ranking system that makes sense, it is “by far the most trusted and well known (and helpful)" of college rankings. She added that though rankings are a good starting point in looking at a school, they are not a substitute for researching a school thoroughly.

Penn's freshman retention rate stayed the same as last year's rankings, at 98 percent. Wharton kept its number one spot for best undergraduate business program, followed by MIT and the University of California, Berkeley.

And, of course, how can we forget the throng at the College Confidential discussion forum? Every year, the horde descends upon these rankings and either cheer, weep, or yawn. Here are some insightful comments from this year's posters:

--- Wow, that is a excellent surprise it came out 3 hours early.

Columbia University actually jumped to 4th place. Wow. Congrats to Columbia University.

Berkeley went down to number 22, from 21 last year.

I can't believe UPenn actually managed to beat MIT and Caltech this year.

Plus, as always, Harvard is #1

Boston College jumped ahead of NYU wow.

--- yeah Cornell got shafted.

--- Columbia University going to 4th spot was the most surprising to me.


Columbia Uni is my dream uni <.<

--- 100-98: Harvard, Princeton, Yale

Big gap

93-90: Stanford, UPenn, Caltech, MIT, Dartmouth, Duke, UChicago

Interesting. If it can be claimed that the quality of undergraduate at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton is nonexistent or negligible, it can be claimed that the quality of education at Stanford, UPenn, Caltech, MIT, Dartmouth, Duke, and UChicago are negligible.

--- I really like Columbia and Harvard, so this ranking makes me happy. If taken classes, gone to parties, and talked to a lot of people at Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard (my current school) and Harvard and Columbia had pretty much the most engaging student bodies in general, with Yale following closely behind. I have hated Princeton every time I have spent time there. I think there's something about the setting of a college that really enlivens a study body or sort of kills it depending on the students' reaction to their environment. Yale copes with it well...Princeton does not.

--- I'm going to have to back up the Big Ten on this one. I went to a Big Ten school for two years (transferring to Penn now), and I'm appalled at how little credit the Big Ten gets in these rankings. I would say that Northwestern is the only Big Ten school that really gets the credit it deserves (probably not a coincidence that it's private). Schools like Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and (sometimes) OSU and Penn State are far more valuable to economic development in their states and research nationwide than a large number of schools ranked ahead of them. I'm not here to detract from the UC's, they're excellent schools as well, but many publics don't get the attention they deserve. I've gotten so disgusted with these rankings over the past few years (even though they always treat Penn well) that I've begun following the top research universites ranking put out by the Center for Measuring by University Performance instead. I think more objective measurements/rankings like that are far more valuable. It actually takes into account federal/non-federal research funding, Ph.D.'s granted, national academy members, etc. instead of "prestige," which is generally a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I grew up in Ohio; OSU has outreach stations in every single county in the state (88). They help local farmers grow more sustainable crops, reach out to underprivileged schools, etc. I'm sure most of the Big Ten schools do similar things. When it comes to actually doing things that matter to the country instead of being "prestigious" and sending out a bunch of corrupt politicians and bankers after graduation, I think publics do a much better job.

Which is more noble: helping to educate the working classes in all ways possible at the cost of exclusivity or working to maintain an air of exclusivity and privilege? An age old question, I suppose, but one most people still haven't figured out.

US News rankings don't even deserve to be described as B.S. because they're too based on opinion for that. Maybe a B.A. Or possibly just an associate's in art.

--- High school counselor rankings are interesting. I thought they'd just be an "echo chamber" factor, mimicking last year's overall US News ranking. But the HS counselors showed some independent thinking. Most of it dumb, mind you, but at least a little independence. At the very top, of course, it's predictably HYPSM, tied at 4.9 out of 5. But then it gets odd.

Here are some schools that got a boost from inclusion of HS counselors in the ranking:

Brown, Cornell, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins: 4.8, same as Columbia and 0.1 behind HYPSM

Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkeley, Notre Dame: 4.6, same as Caltech and Penn

Tufts: 4.5, same as Chicago

IUPUI: 4.0, same as Wisconsin, Tulane, and Penn State

Auburn, UMass Amherst, Rutgers-Newark: 3.9, same as Case Western, Lehigh, U Rochester, and Illinois

Some schools that took it in the shorts from the HS counselors:

Caltech 4.6 (v. 4.9 for MIT?!)

Penn 4.6 (same as Notre Dame?!)

Chicago 4.5 (same as Tufts?!)

UVA 4.3 (5th-ranked public after Berkeley, Michigan, Georgia Tech, UNC Chapel Hill?!)

Wisconsin 4.0 (tied with IUPUI for 14th-best public in the minds of GCs?!)

Illinois 3.9 (on a par with Auburn, UMass Amherst, and Rutgers-Newark?!)

I see a lot of HS students griping about their clueless GCs on CC. This confirms they're not making it up.

And this is "improvement" in the US News ranking?

--- I always find it ludicrous that the rankings are so volatile from year to year, or that these schools are even ranked at all. The arbitrariness of the changes they make just underscores these rankings' complete lack of substance.

There are certain metrics that USNews would have to start including before I start to even remotely think about taking them seriously. For one, student happiness and contentment - preferably measured midway through their college career to avoid freshman euphoria or senior exhaustion - ought to be central in their measurements. Being at a highly prestigious college does not necessarily mean you are happy at that college. Also, the inclusion of undergraduate academic reputation is slightly problematic. The idea that you are creating a ranking of prestige based on a priori knowledge of prestige that is in turn at least partially based on rankings of prestige is a bit circular to me. Essentially this metric produces a buffer to keep the already high-ranking colleges highly ranked, potentially obscuring recognition of any bona fide improvement of a "lower ranked" college. Anyway, that's my thinking on the subject.

So far this has been a decent thread. People have been keeping level-headed about it, as opposed to years past when these rankings used to provoke such ire you'd think they were responsible for a kitten genocide.

--- I think what hurt UCLA considerably...
... was certainly the lowering of weight placed on "peer" ranking from 25% to 15%, from other universities' deans, et al. Then US News added a 7.5% weight from high-school counselors, replacing the lost 10% from peers' ranking.

These counselors had USC, I think it was, 22nd, and UCLA, 30th.

Let's sub parents and students into the rankings as does Princeton. At least there, UCLA is ranked pretty highly, higher than Cal, as is USC. Both UCLA and USC were ranked top-10 in this "poll."

I would like to see how UCLA's Administration responds. I wouldn't think they would really care; just as long as they hit their diversity numbers, they're happy.

Get the picture? If not, here's a hint: There is no picture. These rankings sell magazines and advertising. They also point out the simple fact that there is a huge sea of choice out there for aspiring college students and their parents.
Bottom line: Let the college picker beware. The education you save could be your own!
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

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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