Another fall semester has unfolded, and with it, a 40-year-old tradition. U.S. News & World Report released its latest college rankings yesterday, and colleges are touting their improvements, prevailing against the barrage of criticism it received at the turn of the year.
Coming into 2023, U.S. News found itself in on the back heel. Yale Law School’s decision to stop participating with the seminal college ranking service in November prompted a wave of other prestigious graduate programs to follow through; at least a dozen medical schools and 40+ law schools quit participating. Miguel Cardona, Secretary of the Department of Education, called U.S. News a “false altar” to which the public worships.
The implications of U.S. News’ backlash at the graduate level looked like it would also trickle down to the undergraduate level. In one month’s time, Rhode Island School of Design, Colorado College and Bard College (N.Y.) all dropped out.
But as fast as the crucible against U.S. News began, it subsided, and its 2023 rankings were released with few bruises. Nearly 75% of the graduate schools that submitted data to U.S. News in 2022 also did so in 2023, wrote Eric Gertler, the publication’s CEO and executive chairman, in a column for The Wall Street Journal. Its victory at the undergraduate level is even more resounding; 99% and 97% of the top 100 nationally ranked universities and liberal arts colleges reported data this year.
“I was sure that more schools would join us,” said L. Song Richardson, the president of Colorado College, according to The New York Times. “I am disappointed it hasn’t happened.”
And while some college officials, such as those at Brown University, may argue that “no ranking is effective in determining what school is a good match for a prospective student,” they still market themselves when they perform well. Institutions include UC Berkeley, Temple University and Duke.
How U.S. News’ new methodology appeased criticism
U.S. News changed 17 of the 19 indicators used to judge national universities this time around as a means to adapt to institutional input.
One of its preeminent criticisms was that its methodology appeased wealthier institutions. For example, previous scoring systems prioritizing alumni giving and small class sizes “penalize[d] the vast majority of regional public institutions that do the difficult work of supporting first-generation and underrepresented students,” wrote Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
As a result, the rankings prioritize institutions that support student social mobility and positive student outcomes. Specifically, it changed how it ranked institutions’ Pell Grant students by analyzing their graduation rates more than their enrollment sizes. It also implemented new factors for first-generation students.
But its new methodology still snubbed some universities. Wake Forest University fell to 47th place this year, an 18-spot drop compared to 2022. This year’s rankings took out class size as a ranking factor, stirring officials at Wake Forest University.
“The new U.S. News indicators fail to recognize our commitments,” said Vice President for Enrollment Eric Maguire, according to a school statement. “Enrollment size appears to disproportionately benefit larger institutions. Wake Forest is very focused on increasing access and affordability for all students and lowering barriers to access for low-income students especially.”
Will college rankings ever go away?
Regardless of how administration and faculty may feel about the landscape of college rankings and how it may err a student’s perception of an institution, the sheer number of institutions to choose from will always motivate them to utilize a ranking.
“From our perspective, this is about getting information into the hands of prospective students,” said Andrew D. Martin, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, according to The New York Times.
Michael Elliot, president of Amherst College, wages that the proliferation of college rankings might be on institutions themselves for not better conveying their laurels, especially for under-resourced prospective students. At The Presidents Dinner in D.C., he recalled using U.S. News in high school to “learn about the entire world of higher education” when considering which colleges to apply to.
“How do you somehow convey meaningful information to people who don’t know how to navigate, who don’t come from families who have a narrative on what institutions are valuable?” says Amherst College President Michael Elliott. “I wish institutions like mine created a good way of measuring the impact that goes beyond a return on a degree, and that’s on us as institutions. That is something we can work on.”