U.S. News & World Report's College Rankings - Are They Credible?

September 14th 2014

Lindsay Haskell

As college application season begins, many await the U.S. News & World Report's college rankings to be released next week. But how much influence should this outlet - the most prominent publication for school rankings - really have?

While these rankings ostensibly convey which university is better than another, we often are left to wonder - how do these rankings come to be? How can the many factors that determine a student's ideal college experience be quantitatively deduced? As U.S. News & World Report sees it, they all boil down to six factors: undergraduate academic reputation, retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources and graduation rate performance.

These factors raise even more questions, such as what undergraduate academic reputation truly means. This component accounts for 22.5% of a university's ranking score - the highest among all six factors - and yet is arguably the most subjective. U.S. News & World Report sends surveys to the universities' presidents, provosts and admissions deans asking them to rank all of the other schools in their category on a scale from one to five. They also sent surveys to 2,202 counselors at public high schools. So a significant percentage of a university's rankings is based on how another college president or high school counselor thinks they're doing? That almost seems to make sense...

Another dubious factor is the student selectivity, which amounts to 12.5% of a school's total ranking. To calculate this number, U.S. News & World Report looks at the admission tests scores - the SAT or ACT - of the incoming class, as well as their high school standing and the ratio of students admitted to those who applied. In fact, U.S. News & World Report even changed their methodology to put more weight on the SAT and ACT scores instead of class standing. This is troubling, considering recent studies show that grades, not SAT scores, are better for predicting college success. In fact, the SATs have come under fire for possibly favoring affluent, educated families, and being biased against African American students. 

The U.S. News & World Report's questionable ranking factors are not the only problem. There are also many factors that the report does not consider, including the value of the college tuition. As tuition continues to sky-rocket, it would be prudent to see which colleges have the most economic value. Money Magazine even capitalized on this gaping hole by ranking colleges based on affordability, educational quality, and career outcomes.

What the U.S. News & World Report really shows us is how difficult it is to quantify the many intangible, along with the tangible, aspects of a college experience. However, considering the weight that this report often has, it seems wise that they address the many faults in their algorithm.

For another great story about the rise of brand name education, click here