The Rankings Rat-Race

Mel Elfin, a man most famous for his significant contributions to the development of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, passed away on September 25th at the age of eighty-nine. His most prominent legacy—the ‘Best Colleges’ rankings, which are highly anticipated within the world of higher education each September—continue to inspire controversy even 35 years after their first publication in 1983.

There’s no shortage of college rankings out there—many news publications, magazines, college counselors, and private individuals compile their own lists—but the U.S. News college rankings are undoubtedly the most ubiquitous. The annual list is published at the beginning of each September, and is met with celebration by schools and students who see their institution move up and griping by members of colleges that are knocked down.

With the U.S. News rankings’ prominence comes significant criticism. Articles like ‘Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings,’ published in The Atlantic, are omnipresent in the days after the annual publication of the report. The most common criticisms lament the presence of subjective “peer assessment,” in which individuals in academia are asked to give their perceptions of school quality. The rankings instead focus on standardized test scores and institutional wealth, establishing artificial distinctions between similar schools.

Another major source of controversy surrounding the rankings involves the schools that push false statistics to climb the ranks. In 2012, a Claremont McKenna administrator resigned after admitting to inflating SAT scores submitted to the rankings. During the same year, Emory University admitted to artificially raising student SAT scores and class rankings for the reports. It’s not difficult to game the rankings in ways which don’t necessarily require dishonesty on the part of universities—artificially deflating acceptance rates by practicing “yield protection,” or encouraging low-dollar amount alumni to give more—can rocket a school up in the ranks without significant change within the school itself.

In response to this sometimes-deafening criticism, the U.S. News rankings formula has changed many times since its initial publication. This year, the rankings saw one of the largest formula shifts in years. Student outcomes became a larger portion of the rankings, and for the first time a “social mobility” measure was included. Meanwhile, “expert opinion” was reduced in importance, as were SAT scores and high school class ranks. The most notable shift in this year’s rankings came not at the very top of the rankings—still, as has been the case over the past few decades, held by Princeton and Harvard—but just a bit lower on the list. The University of California at Berkeley was dethroned from its longtime post as the nation’s #1 Public University, and replaced by its rival, the University of California at Los Angeles, which came in at #19 overall.

U.S. News has introduced other measures as well to deflect critics who insinuate college rankings are too one-size-fits-all, unable to be customized for certain students’ needs. The My Fit custom ranking, a tool offered by U.S. News, allows students to enter their demographic data and preferences to develop a list of best-fit schools based on the student’s particular situation. Though tools like the My Fit ranking certainly won’t be used by all high school students, they go a long way toward erasing the impersonality and one-size-fits-all mentality enforced for years by the ‘Best Colleges’ lists.