The Future of College Rankings. Can They Survive?

U.S. News can continue ranking colleges and graduate schools without their input, but what value does that offer prospective students?
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on March 27, 2023
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Darlene Earnest is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has had an extensive editing career at several news organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also has completed programs for editors offered by the D...
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  • Several top law and medical schools have withdrawn from U.S. News rankings, and some undergraduate colleges are following suit.
  • University leaders say rankings are based on faulty measures and assumptions.
  • The pursuit of higher rankings has led to scandals and lawsuits.
  • The future of college rankings is in doubt, but they'll likely persist in the near future despite limitations.

One by one, top law and medical schools have been opting out of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Now some undergraduate colleges are following suit, refusing to participate in the magazine's annual rankings ritual.

Do these seismic rumblings portend a tectonic shift that will forever alter the landscape of college rankings? Or will U.S. News march merrily along with or without cooperation from the institutions routinely headlining their lists?

Growth and Popularity of College Rankings

U.S. News has been in the college rankings business since 1983. Each year, tens of thousands of students rely on these rankings to make "informed" decisions about their college choices.

But as popular as rankings have been, they've been equally controversial, even scandalous at times.

Now, after 40 years, some of the nation's most elite colleges and universities are finally pushing back, denouncing the rankings and refusing to participate.

To be fair, U.S. News isn't the only publication or website that ranks colleges. The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Money, The Washington Monthly, Times Higher Education, and The Princeton Review, among others, also offer variations on this theme.

But U.S. News is certainly the most influential. One survey found that two-thirds of students consider college rankings when making choices about where to apply.

And 58% cited U.S. News as their go-to source. The Princeton Review was a distant second, at 21%.

On the flip side, what do universities themselves think of these rankings? Some colleges still wear high rankings as a badge of honor, touting them in admissions brochures and marketing materials.

Yet many have grown tired of the rankings and their stranglehold on higher education. University leaders no longer want to make policy decisions based on rankings formulas. Admissions officers don't want magazines dictating whom they should admit.

College rankings, they say, do more harm than good.

And they no longer want to be part of the problem.

Concerns About College Rankings

What, exactly, do they take issue with?

First, the U.S. News formula rewards the richest institutions. Many of the criteria measure wealth — both of the institutions and those they enroll. Colleges with large endowments that can provide resources to students and faculty and attract the kinds of students more likely to persist, graduate with lower debt, and give back as alumni benefit the most from the magazine's formula.

But having a large endowment doesn't always mean you deliver an outstanding educational experience.

Second, they're arbitrary. The U.S. News formula has evolved over time. Other magazines and websites use different criteria. What actually constitutes quality, and how do you measure it? Nobody knows.

And those reputational rankings? Do college leaders really know what's going on at hundreds of other schools? Or do the rankings themselves influence how they rank colleges, creating a self-perpetuating echo chamber?

Third, they encourage cheating. In the pursuit of ever-higher rankings — gaming the system, as many call it — colleges have been caught submitting faulty data to U.S. News.

Columbia did, and U.S. News dropped it from No. 2 to No. 18 last year. Adding injury to insult, some Columbia alumni have sued the university for fraud. Are magazine rankings really worth that kind of risk?

At the very least, the perception that colleges cheat undermines the validity of the rankings.

Finally, an education is a personal journey, one that's different for everyone. Fit is more important than numerical rankings. Choosing a college because it lands high on a magazine's list is a poor way of making such a critical decision.

Universities Withdraw From Rankings Participation

Late last year, a number of leading law and medical schools began dropping out of the U.S. News rankings game, refusing to cooperate with the magazine's data collection.

Yale Law School led the way, followed quickly by Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Columbia, Michigan, Duke, and several other law schools U.S. News regularly ranks among its top 20.

Law school officials claim the rankings incentivize them to recruit students with high standardized test scores, students who often can afford expensive test prep courses.

As a result, incoming classes aren't as socioeconomically diverse as they could be.

Rankings also discourage public service careers and disregard loan forgiveness programs when calculating student debt loads. Should law schools be in the business of steering students away from these vitally important career tracks?

Around that same time, leading medical schools, including Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Penn, and Stanford — all highly ranked by U.S. News — followed a similar path by refusing to participate.

Like law schools, medical schools cited problems with the magazine's misguided assumptions related to admissions criteria and career choices.

More recently, a few colleges withdrew from undergraduate rankings — Rhode Island School of Design, Colorado College, and Bard College.

They're certainly not the first to do so. Reed College, in fact, hasn't participated since 1995, and some claim the magazine has ranked Reed far too low ever since, assigning it lower scores than it rightly deserved, possibly as retribution.

The Waning Value of College Rankings

Where does all this leave U.S. News and, perhaps by extension, college rankings in general?

To be sure, the law and medical school situation is messy. The salient concern is how U.S. News will treat institutions that have dropped out.

It's essentially a Catch-22 for the publication. If it effectively punishes top schools such as Yale Law and Harvard Medical School for failing to participate and assigns them a lower ranking, the validity of the list will be questioned.

If Yale Law, which has been ranked No. 1 for years, suddenly lands far lower, will anyone take the list seriously?

By the same token, if these highly ranked schools retain their ranking, the lists might seem contrived.

For now, the magazine's bread-and-butter rankings — undergraduate schools — remain largely intact. None of the institutions clustered at the very top — the Ivies and other elite private schools, leading publics — have pulled out. But that may happen, and relatively soon.

Which of these colleges will be the first domino to fall, potentially starting a chain reaction leading to a mass exodus from the rankings game?

It could occur this year, though it's unlikely given the timing. Colleges submit surveys and data to U.S. News throughout the spring, adhering to a July 1 deadline. We might assume that if top undergraduate colleges were to boycott U.S. News, we would've heard by now.

If and when that eventually happens, U.S. News can continue ranking colleges even without their participation. They won't be able to incorporate peer surveys, which constitute 20% of the scores, though they certainly can gather objective data from public sources such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the College Scorecard, and the Common Data Set.

Then again, if U.S. News is left with only public data, what value does it add? Certainly it can crunch some numbers according to a revamped formula and spit out new lists. But at that point, it serves only as an aggregator, not an evaluator.

Instead, students and families can, and perhaps should, review that same data and draw their own conclusions, using this information to complement qualitative assessments such as college visits and conversations with students and alumni.

They also can take advantage of a new interactive tool offered by The New York Times called "Build Your Own College Rankings." The tool aims to recommend colleges that "fit" best based on a sliding scale of how much a student values variables such as location, size, cost, academics, athletics, diversity, safety, and even partying. At the very least, it requires students to evaluate what they deem more or less important when choosing colleges.

And that, incidentally, is what higher education leaders have said all along: Don't rely solely on numerical rankings to make decisions for you. Something this subjective and personal cannot be measured by a collection of data points. No formula can determine your best fit.

Graduate schools are finally acting on this assumption by walking away from the rankings. More undergraduate counterparts might eventually join them. No longer content to publicly decry rankings while maneuvering internally to ensure favorable placement, university leaders are waving their hands in a collective dismissal of the entire enterprise.

Once all of higher education finally turns its back on college rankings, the public shouldn't be far behind. Despite continual tinkering with formulas in response to institutional pressures, these rankings — from U.S. News and other publications — will simply seem less relevant and useful.

Meanwhile, U.S. News claims it will continue ranking colleges because "every student deserves access to high quality, transparent and reliable information about their education." Students already have much of that information at their disposal thanks to public databases. They just need to know how to find them.

College rankings aren't going away anytime soon, but their heyday may have passed. Students and families don't need them, and university leaders most assuredly won't miss them.