US News Changes Methodology Behind Annual Rankings

The annual release of the U.S. News Best Colleges list came with new methodologies for ranking schools. While the recent change in approach includes parameters such as faculty salaries and rank, the most controversial change focuses on test scores during the pandemic.

Colleges reporting less than 50% of their admitted students’ test scores are now ranked based on 2020 and 2021 data. Schools ranked using older testing data will be flagged. If new test scores are unavailable, weight will be placed on other factors, which have a significant correlation with high test scores, like six-year graduation rate and high school standing.

U.S. News also released the 17 criteria by which they currently rank their schools. The criteria are grouped under 9 major categories:

  • graduation and retention rates
  • social mobility
  • graduate rate performance
  • undergraduate academic reputation
  • faculty resources
  • student selectivity
  • financial resources per student
  • average alumni giving rate
  • graduate indebtedness

The new rankings brought a wave of criticisms towards U.S. News and their ranking practices. Columbia, a school previously ranked #2 on U.S. News’ Best Colleges list, was found to have submitted misleading data to U.S. News for their 2022-2023 rankings. After the data was seemingly corrected, Columbia fell to the #18 spot on the list.

Many saw the Columbia debacle as a lack of integrity in the U.S. News ranking system. Dr. Michael Thaddeus, a Columbia mathematics professor, uncovered the discrepancies in the university’s data. According to Thaddeus, “If any institution can decline from No. 2 to No. 18 in a single year, it just discredits the whole rankings operation.”

In addition, critics targeted U.S. News’ college reputation survey. Each year, schools are sent a survey, which asks them to provide their opinions on other universities. The survey allows U.S. News to gather insight on schools’ reputations within higher education. This metric accounts for a staggering 20% of a school’s ranking.

Critics of the survey say that it is impossible for any college to have enough knowledge about the thousands of colleges across the U.S. to deliver a fair and accurate ranking. The survey has had a long history of opposition. Many schools like Reed College (in Oregon) have boycotted the survey, risking their own ranking in the process.

Ultimately, opponents see college reputation as a poor metric. They cite economic mobility and return on investment as fairer measurements.

Ranking schools via a single number has been put into question. Some students, parents, and teachers find the simplicity appealing, however. Comparing multiple schools by a single number makes the application process easier for this group.

There are drawbacks to this simplicity. For instance, it overemphasizes a school’s wealth and prestige. The proposed solutions to this problem are ranking schools by economic factors and the value – especially qualitative value – they provide to their local communities. Such a system would account for other indicators like loan repayment rates and graduate employment into decent-paying jobs.

In this type of list, schools like California State University at Los Angeles would rank highly based on the quantitative and qualitative value they bring to their local community. The Carnegie Classifications, a descriptive framework for colleges used by U.S. News, are now being revised to better incorporate such factors. These changes will disrupt U.S. News’ current methodology, but they will provide necessary tools to build a more comprehensive college ranking system.

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