3 Reasons Why College Rankings Are Worth Discussing

September 12th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

U.S. News & World Report released their annual college rankings list this week, and the results were, well, unsurprising. In first place, you have Princeton University, followed by Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. Besides some slight advances and digressions, nothing stood out because nothing about these rankings is particularly insightful or progressive in the first place.

Every year, these rankings are released by the proverbial college publication as well as dozens of other magazines and blogs, and every year, they come under criticism. There's good reason for the backlash, too, as these ranking systems are fundamentally flawed.

Not only are universities rewarded for spending more on amenities (or toward whatever ranking metric U.S. News chose to include in its analysis), but these rankings fail to consider factors that really ought to determine the quality of education that a given institution has to offer. For example, these rankings do not account for how much a student learns, how their professors stack up, or what the outcomes of students' degrees really are in a long-term sense.

Here are three reasons why college rankings are useless.

1. U.S. News & World Report changes the metrics too often.

Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

This feeds into the idea that college rankings are based more on opinion that quantifiable facts. In an effort to create the most up-to-date list of the best colleges in the country, the publication plays with metrics, changes the factors that they include in their analysis. And though that only yields slight changes in the overall composition of the rankings, it does seem to suggest that these measurements are not based on "meaningful comparisons," as the Atlantic reported.

2. They encourage universities to cheat the system.

Stanford University

Because of how popular these rankings are—many prospective college students in the country pay them a cursory glance when they are released—they tend to push schools to adjust their budgets, to invest more in certain programs as opposed to others, and spend more on those factors that have the best payoff based on the rankings formula.

"President Barack Obama proposed that the Department of Education create its own rankings, in part to combat schools' gaming the numbers to rise in the lists," NBC News reported. But that plan was met with significant opposition.

3. Reputations mean more than data.

Grad College

Indeed, the perceived reputation of a given institution is generally more valuable, as far as rankings are concerned, than the quantifiable features of the education they offer. The most influential aspect of the rankings system is something known as "undergraduate academic reputation," which is based on "academic peer assessment surveys sent to college presidents, provosts and deans of admission, along with high school counselors," as Salon noted.

"Intangibles can have value," ATTN:'s Matthew Segal wrote. "But in the college ranking system, they boil down to one very tangible element: name-branding. Nothing could be less relevant to a student’s education while attending college."