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The Carletonian

The U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings are a promotional gimmick. Let’s treat them that way.

The U.S. News & World Report. Its university and liberal arts college rankings are awaited anxiously each year by parents, students and members of higher education. There is no ranking system that dominates the college admissions process more than U.S. News, who annually attest to its rigorous 

scoring system, built on factors which, when combined, guarantee an accurate assessment of quality. 

This year, Carleton shot from 9 on the rankings to 6, news celebrated by President Alison Byerly in her opening convocation speech and pinned on the official twitter of the Carleton football team. U.S. News & World Report rankings are a cause for celebration. Colleges frequently present high rankings to donors, pumping up the top schools’ massive endowments and relegating the hundreds of smaller colleges to shrinking budgets and a growing lack of student interest. Rankings have become inextricably tied to academic excellence, rigor, and promises of future successes. 

How has this happened? How did a relatively obscure media company become the only respected voice in American higher education? 

They needed to rebrand — less popular than its larger competitors, Time and Newsweek, the magazine expanded its interests to include education. U.S. News introduced its first college and university rankings in 1983, and it has since become the company’s most profitable business. In the early 1980s, U.S. News, a weekly news magazine based out of Washington D.C. was acquired by Canadian billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman. 

Various factors have been attributed to the meteoric rise of U.S. News. In a 2011 study, Michael Luca, Professor of Economics at Harvard Business School and Jonathan Smith, Professor of Economics at Georgia State University, learned that the popularity of the rankings was largely due to their simplicity — previous college guides contained lengthy paragraphs and lists of statistics, unappealing when compared to U.S. News’ immediately available aggregate score. Luca and Smith concluded that one move up the rankings led to a percentage point increase in the number of applications sent to that college or university. 

The 2022-2023 U.S. News ranking was calculated using 17 “key measures of academic quality.” Graduation and Retention Rate held a weight of 22%. Graduation Rate Performance: 8%. Faculty Resources: 20%. Social Mobility: 5%. Student Selectivity: 7%. Financial Resources per Student: 10%. Average Alumni Giving Rate: 3%. Graduate Indebtedness: 5%. And, clocking in at 20%, equal to Faculty Resources and well above Financial Resources per Student and Graduate Indebtedness is a score labeled Undergraduate Academic Reputation. 

To calculate this elusive factor, U.S News annually sends out a list of peer institutions to the presidents, provosts and deans of admission across America. These faculty then have the option to rate these schools somewhere between 1 (marginal) and 5 (distinguished). These scores depend entirely upon the opinion of the official being asked. No prior visitation to the school or intimate knowledge of its approach is needed. When asked about her decision to participate in this annual scoring system, while clarifying that there were years when she chose not to participate entirely, President Byerly explained: “My worry about not participating is that [U.S. News] surveys chief academic officers and presidents, and they also survey college counselors. If presidents and provosts just don’t participate, then more of the emphasis goes simply on college counselors, who I think actually are very well-informed about many schools but maybe don’t know as much about institutions as people who are leading them. As long as the survey exists and other people are filling it out, I certainly am happy to do that myself. Like most presidents, though, I’m very rigorous about not scoring a school that I don’t know a lot about.”

When asked about her criteria when choosing whether to rank a school, Byerly said: “There are schools where you might have been on a re-accreditation committee to look at their curriculum, or you might have gotten to know several members of the faculty through conferences and heard them talk about the institution. Again, that’s very partial knowledge too, that’s also reputational… Carleton, even before my daughter went here, I had heard a lot about over time, so back when I was a provost at Middlebury, I certainly felt comfortable ranking Carleton, and of course ranking it highly, even though I hadn’t yet been there or didn’t have a family member who’d gone there.” 

The U.S. News & World Report and its system of peer evaluation seems to be a game that many members of higher-ed still deem necessary to play. Refusal can lead to dire consequences. In 2019, Reed College refused to submit a reputation score along with other key statistics requested by U.S. News. The following year, they ranked 90th in the list of national liberal arts colleges. Disgruntled Reed statistics students reverse-engineered U.S. News’ algorithm, inputting the data that the college would have provided and doing the same for the other colleges on the list. They developed a ranking all their own, nearly identical to U.S. News’ save for one crucial factor: Reed. Based on their investigation, the students surmised that the college’s score was actually closer to a 38. But Reed is far from the only institution to feel U.S. News’ wrath. This year, Columbia University admitted to misreporting data about class size and faculty degrees to U.S. News. In one ranking cycle, the university dropped from coveted 2nd to 18th. 

Despite U.S. News’ assertion that they are constantly refining and improving their algorithm, the rankings the company produces from year to year remain surprisingly stagnant. Williams College, ranked number one in National Liberal Arts Colleges, has maintained the spot for twenty years. Carleton has held onto its top spot in Undergraduate Teaching for twelve.

Have the U.S. News & World Report’s powerful reputation and unchanging rankings created a feedback loop in the biggest popularity contest in higher education? One in which college leaders repeatedly see Williams rank first while other schools, frequently in the American South, with smaller war chests and lower attraction to talented students such as Spelman College and Southwestern University remain unadmired and unvisited at respective 51s and 85s? 

“It would be virtually impossible for a school that had really great faculty and really smart students and a really good attitude but no endowment to dislodge Williams at the top because some of the metrics are really, what are you spending on things and how large is your endowment?” said Byerly. 

Despite the obvious flaws in its rankings system, U.S. News continues to define the culture of colleges and universities. Growing tuition costs and the cutthroat frenzy surrounding applications to “excellent” institutions is a trend which only seems to be increasing in a system that solely rewards monetary gain. President Byerly provided an example from her time as president at Lafayette College, which fell in the rankings after increasing the size of their student body: “…because we were spending less money per student, and the whole point was we were taking that extra saved money and putting it back into financial aid and we were able to offer more scholarships, [U.S. News] was actually penalizing the college in the rankings because we were spending less per student.” 

The rankings, it seems, are here to stay. Nonetheless, we can decide if they still hold any meaning. 

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