Despite controversy and evidence that they are not crucial to students’ decision making, the U.S. News undergraduate college rankings remain influential in higher education circles. The rankings have retained their predictability, with Princeton holding the top spot for the past 13 years, along with other Ivy League and highly selective colleges. Even college leaders and federal officials who deride the rankings keep returning to the topic when discussing other issues.
The fixation on rankings can be attributed to a drive for prestige among wealthier applicants and the influence of their influential families. Academically and economically privileged applicants are raised to value social status, prestige, and high incomes, so they are eager to know which schools have the most prestige and status.
Rankings also fill an information void for students and families, providing a “shortcut” way to categorize the thousands of institutions across the country. However, what many people fail to realize is that rankings can vary depending on the factors emphasized, and any college can have some sort of designation.
While college leaders criticize the rankings for creating a one-size-fits-all evaluation method that masks the differences between schools, they still recognize the marketing value of a good ranking. This juxtaposition leads to rankings being something that admissions officers both love to hate and hate to love.
The CEO of U.S. News, Eric Gertler, argues that the rankings hold schools accountable for the education they deliver and help prospective students and families make decisions. However, critics argue that the rankings have skewed college leaders’ incentives and contributed to rising tuition costs.
Once filled an information void for families
When U.S. News first started ranking schools in 1983, it filled an information void as authoritative data on colleges wasn’t easily accessible. Students and families would rely on the U.S. News booklet to get a sense of their school options. However, over the years, the rankings have become entrenched and influenced college leaders’ decisions.
Some college leaders argue that the rankings take into account factors that aren’t always beneficial for students, such as standardized test scores and class rank. The rankings may also be costing students and families, as schools focus on spending per student to improve their rankings instead of keeping tuition costs down.
The rankings’ methodology changes this year include focusing more on a college’s outcomes rather than inputs and dropping factors such as alumni giving, class size, and faculty credentials. These changes reflect a shift towards outcomes-focused rankings that consider factors like social mobility and student success after graduation.
Inputs vs. outcomes
Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, consistently ranks highly in measures of outcomes such as high earnings with low price and social mobility. The college believes that education is about transforming students and is pleased that more rankings are focusing on outcomes rather than reputation.
However, college rankings will likely continue to influence decision-making in higher education, especially as colleges strive for more equity following the Supreme Court’s decision to ban affirmative action. The rankings have become deeply integrated into institutions’ thinking, and any changes may impact their institutional ranking.