“So many highly successful adults went to schools we might not consider prestigious. Everyone has their own path.”

— Dr. M, Interview with The Epic, Lynbrook High School, 12/7/21

Every year, eager students and parents pore over the U.S. News & World Report college rankings to decide where to apply.

As a result, highly-ranked schools typically rise to the top of applicants’ school lists because everyone assumes top-ranked schools deliver the best education and outcomes.

But these assumptions aren’t necessarily accurate.

In this blog, we’re going “behind the curtain” of college rankings, looking most closely at the US News rankings, so parents and students know what rankings are – and aren’t – telling them.

Different Rankings Yield Different Results

Although the US News rankings are perhaps the most popular and well-known, many organizations rank colleges and universities. Others include Forbes, Princeton Review, Money, College Factual and Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education.

According to the 2022 US News rankings, Princeton is the #1 National University. Forbes, however, lists UC Berkeley as the #1 “Top College.” Harvard is first in the Wall Street Journal/Times listing of “Top US Colleges and Universities,” but falls to 10th in College Factual, which points to Harvey Mudd as #1.

To the unknowing applicant, it might seem that these rankings should provide the same information. Yet they are all quite different. Why?

Each publication defines its own ranking criteria. So it’s critical for parents and students to understand the factors and methodology utilized by each organization.

US News And World Report Rankings

Below are the factors US News considers, as well as the weight assigned to each:

U.S. News & World Report Ranking Indicators & Weights
US News and World Report Ranking Indicators and Weights

Source: U.S. News & World Report College Edition

Hmm…Something’s Missing…

Contrary to what most parents and students believe, US News does not assess a college or university’s academic quality — how strong the education is at a particular school.

As best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a New Yorker critique of US News’s rankings, “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution—how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the US News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality—and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”

US News measures only “Academic Reputation,” a completely subjective measurement of what others think of the school that accounts for 20% of the US News score: 15% through peer reviews by college administrators who rate “peer colleges” similar in size and location, and 5% from the opinion of high school guidance counselors. Within this “Reputation” category….

  1. There is no assessment of the quality of professors’ teaching or their availability to students – just “staff compensation” and qualifications
  2. There is no assessment of a college’s academic programs by professors/experts in specific fields, or by employers or graduate schools of how students perform after graduation
  3. Only minor weight is given to the caliber of students
    • high school standing – weighted only 2.2%
    • standardized test scores – 7.8%

Colleges Can (and Do) Manipulate Rankings

Colleges have many motivations for raising their rankings, including higher-quality and more applicants, and the increased application fee revenue that more applicants bring.

Here are some ways colleges can manipulate Selectivity (10%), Test Scores/GPA (10%) and Peer Reviews (15%) to influence up to 35% of their US News ranking.

  1. Selectivity: The number of admitted students divided by the number of applicants. To appear more selective, colleges can increase the denominator by reporting “interest” (a postcard or click) as an “application,” or decrease the numerator by delaying admissions offers or offering sophomore-year transfers – both count as “rejections,” not admissions offers.
  2. Standardized Test Scores: If scores are optional, only applicants with high scores will submit them, raising a college’s average scores. In addition, within the last decade, Claremont McKenna, Bucknell and Iona College have all admitted reporting inflated scores. In 2008, Baylor told admitted students they’d receive a $300 bookstore credit to retake the SAT, and $1,000/year in aid if their scores improved more than 50 points.
  3. Peer reviews: Undeniably one of the most subjective factors. Between 1996-2006, President Freeland of Northeastern University calculated that about three people at each college do peer reviews. During trips and conferences, he sought out those administrators to influence how they ranked Northeastern. He put less effort into assessing other schools: “I did it based on what was in my head,” he says. “It would have been much more honest just to not fill it out.”

How Northeastern Gamed the US News Ranking

Hover to read more

Under President Freeland, between 1996 and 2003 Northeastern rose more than 60 spots in the US News ranking, all the way to #98. According to Freeland, “There’s no question that the system invites gaming. We made a systematic effort to influence [the outcome].”

Accordingly, President Freeland directed Northeastern researchers to break down and replicate the US News code, then optimized decisions and resources to raise Northeastern’s ranking. When Freeland retired in 2006, Northeastern trustees awarded him about $2 million to acknowledge his success.

Conclusion

At Blue Stars, we know it’s hard to resist the lure of the rankings, especially those produced by US News. But since each student has unique talents, goals, preferences, personality, motivations, experience, skills, and financial circumstances, choosing best-fit colleges should result from individualized, customized research – not rankings that can be easily manipulated.

Blue Stars consultants can not only help clients interpret rankings, we can help clients assess their own academic and personal profile, preferences, and financial circumstances. We guide clients through a highly personalized evaluation that produces a college list based on a college’s fit with each student’s goals, aptitudes, and preferences, so that clients can be confident that the schools they choose are great matches – no matter their rankings.

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Published On: May 27th, 2022 / By / Categories: College Planning /
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