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Increased scrutiny surrounding the information colleges are submitting to boost their rankings might put the system out of power.
It’s acceptance letter season for colleges across the U.S. — one of the most exciting and stressful times of the year for many teenagers.
A staple of the college application experience is, of course, the U.S. News Best College rankings. For nearly the last 40 years, U.S. News annually releases a definitive ranking of colleges, graduate schools and more.
It’s hard to deny how influential the lists have become. Colleges will boast their rank in brochure materials and openly strategize how to move up in the rankings. Plus, the list can be a big factor in where students decide to go.
But lately, there’s been more scrutiny on the ranking system, driven in huge part by a series of high-profile scandals.
One of the biggest cases involves a math professor at Columbia University who, in early 2022, challenged the data the school reported to U.S. News. The whistleblower accused the school of sending inaccurate or misleading stats around things like how much it spends on teaching, class sizes, percentage of faculty that are full-time and more. In late 2022, the school pulled out of the rankings altogether.
The professor’s report coincided with news that the former dean of Temple University’s Business School was sentenced to one year in prison for fraud after inflating the schools’ program rankings. Much of the scheme also involved sending false stats to U.S. News, which sent the business program to the No. 1 spot in the country for four years in a row.
Once the dam burst, many other schools were hit with scandals. Late last year, several graduates of University of Southern California sued their school for allegedly sending misleading data and promoting fraudulent rankings to attract students.
These high-profile examples are far from the only ones. Over the last decade, accusations and scandals have hit tons of schools over contentious data, from inaccurate alumni donation rates to overstating admissions numbers and more. Some schools blame human error or U.S. News’ ranking formula itself.
A number of medical school and law schools have now also pulled out of U.S. News rankings this year, including programs from Yale, Stanford, Harvard, UPenn and Columbia.
Regarding Columbia’s data issues, U.S. News states it expects colleges to “provide accurate, transparent data.”
But the controversy for the college ranking industry doesn’t end with just bad data. Even outside of these cases, critics have been arguing the formula behind the rankings is flawed to begin with.
Colin Diver is the former president of Reed College and author of "Breaking Ranks," a book on how the ranking industry has dominated higher ed.
"I had to deal with the reality, what I often found to be the unfortunate and the harsh reality of being judged by this group of non-educators who were taking it upon themselves to essentially establish standards of quality for our industry," Diver said.
The biggest individual factor for how the ranking is made is something called the “peer assessment survey,” which the U.S News categorizes as a school’s “reputation.” This makes up a whopping 20% of the total ranking. U.S. News explains the survey comes from presidents, provosts and deans of admissions who rate institutions “with which they are familiar.”
"U.S. News sends a survey around to all college presidents and deans and says, 'Here's a list of the hundreds of schools in your institutional category... Please list them all in five quality quintiles,'" Diver said. "In other words, give them a rating from one to five as if you were rating restaurants or Uber drivers or something like that. It is, a little bit, like ranking restaurants based solely on what the chefs say about the quality of their food. Do you really rely on that? Yes, they really rely on that."
The next highest factor is the “six-year graduation rate:" the average amount of each entering class that graduates within six years. It’s worth noting low-income students are far less likely to graduate within that time frame; only about 1 in 10 of students in the bottom quarter for income manage to do that.
Some critics have argued this indicates a student body’s affluence more than their academic success. It might even discourage colleges from accepting students who are likely to graduate outside of this time frame, like students with lower-income backgrounds.
"What the quantitative variables are that the rankers focus on either directly or indirectly: privilege. Privileged privilege the privileged," Diver said. "There is a very direct, strong correlation between family wealth and standardized test score, so in effect, the rankings are encouraging schools to give even more weight to family wealth than they probably otherwise would."
For its part, U.S. News has said it often updates the methodology to, “reflect a better sense of the landscape.” In 2018, the publication added a “social mobility” ranking to its formula by assessing the graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients, who are from low-and middle-income families.
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Deciding how to “rank” colleges in the first place is not so simple.
If someone were asked if their school was "worth it," a big factor in their answer would probably be cost.
Only 46% of students who have bachelor’s degrees and currently have student debt believe the benefits of their education outweighed the costs. But for the U.S. News rankings, debt isn’t a major factor. A school’s average accumulated federal loan debt compared to other schools only makes up 3% of the final school ranking.
"It's a good thing to have a school that has a graduating class with a low level of debt, but there's two ways to do that," Diver said. "One is to reward a whole lot of grants to students based on their financial need so that they don't have to borrow. But the other way to minimize your students debt loads is to admit only rich kids who don't need to borrow."
It’s easy to see why having a seamless way to rank and compare colleges could be so important for such a big and costly decision, but the fraud scandals are giving many students pause about how people engage with the “college ranking industry” and what kind of weight to give it.
"Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for all Americans. That system of ranking is a joke," said Miguel Cardona, secretary of the Department of Education.
It begs the question: What does the public want schools and resources to be prioritizing? It may be worth rethinking some assumptions about what it really means to get a “good education.”
"My advice for applicants is, don't start by saying, 'What's the best college?' Start by saying, 'Who am I? What do I need at this stage in my life? What do I need to work on? What do I need to improve? What are my dreams?'" Diver said. "Once you've started asking those questions and answering them, it's very easy to find a lists of colleges that plausibly serve your interests."
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