clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why the U.S. News college rankings are under scrutiny

U.S. News reveals its top college. But why have the annual rankings recently come under scrutiny?

The Princeton University campus in Princeton, N.J.
People walk through the Princeton University campus in Princeton, N.J. The school is rated by U.S. News as the bast school to attend, but is it?
Seth Wenig, Associated Presss

U.S. News & World Report has identified the best national universities in the country, but they’re not exactly the easiest universities to attend.

In its annual ranking, U.S. News and World Report revealed the best schools to attend based on student outcomes, faculty resources, expert opinion, financial resource, student excellence and alumni giving. This is the 37th year the rankings have been release.

“This year’s top universities share many things in common,” according to CNBC. “They are all prestigious schools with large endowments and four of the top five are members of the Ivy League. They are all also incredibly difficult to get into, with admitted students boasting strong high school records and high standardized test scores.”

The top five schools are Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University.

It’s not exactly easy to get into Princeton, though. Per CNBC, Princeton offered admission to 1,498 students. That’s it. The acceptance rate hovers around 6%. And 89% of first-year students were within the top 10% of their high school class. The average SAT score for the group was around 1450-1570.

The other top five schools included Harvard, Columbia, MIT and Yale University. These schools all require high SAT scores and have acceptance rates below 10%.

These rankings came under scrutiny recently when author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell examined the process on his Revisionist History podcast. In the episode titled “Lord of the Rankings,” Gladwell questions the process based on research with statisticians from Reed College.

“His conclusion? The algorithm is fundamentally a reflection of wealth and privilege, favoring rich over poor, white over Black, and fancy dorms over inspiring professors,” according to Reed College.

One of the reasons, Gladwell said, is because the rankings rely on the opinions of presidents, provosts and deans of admissions of their peer institutions. But some often know little about their peer universities. Most of the ratings, he said, are based off reputation. And the reputation of those schools are often repeated and maintained every year through the U.S. News and World Report. And the rankings often ignore historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Gladwell told The Grio that the rankings focus a lot on graduation rates, placing heavy importance on how often people graduate from the school more than anything else.

But that doesn’t address the issues of students having to drop out.

“U.S. News & World Report rankings seems to want to say that depending on the number of students that graduate from the school, the better that school must be,” Gladwell told The Grio.

“That is nonsense. Graduation rates are not a function of the quality of education at the school. It is actually a function of the income levels of the students. If you’re from a poor family, and your dad loses his job, or your mom gets sick or something, you’ll have to drop out and go home. It has nothing to do with the school you are attending, it’s got everything to do with the family’s circumstances.”

That said, U.S. News and World Report has been known to change its rankings methodology. For example, this year the rankings tweaked the importance of standardized test scores. While test scores are just as important in overall ranking, U.S. News and World Report changed how much the scores would help individual schools. Of course, according to Insider Higher Ed, the scores still protected a lot of the competitive schools.

Stephen Burd, an editor with New America, a liberal research organization, told Insider Higher Ed that the rankings have an impact on college behavior. How the report reviews test scores will impact how schools use test scores when picking students.

“The fact that U.S. News, a private commercial entity, has that much influence is incredibly disturbing,” he said.