Last week, U.S. News & World Report released its highly anticipated, and highly controversial, annual college rankings. Like most people, we love ratings systems and refer to them when purchasing a variety of things, like computers or household appliances. But let’s face it, paying for a higher education is not the equivalent of buying a toaster—the best college for me isn’t necessarily the best college for you. Yet, U.S. News unabashedly assigns a rank number to nearly 2,000 institutions, whose missions, attributes and learning environments are as varied as the millions of students who apply to college each year. Before forking over your hard-earned money to get a glimpse of the latest “dog and pony show,” here are a few things you should know:

  • The U.S. News rankings appear to suggest that an ordering of institutions was devised through definitive and rigorous means, and that there is a significant reason as to why Princeton is ranked 6 spots higher than MIT or why Amherst is rated 11 spots higher than Vassar. But there is no reason, really—the U.S. News formula is largely subjective and consists of measures that the magazine chooses, not what the research community deems as indicative of institutional quality.
  • We’ll say it again. U.S. News employs measures that are largely subjective. For example, a measure indicating undergraduate academic reputation, which currently comprises 22.5% of the magazine’s ranking formula, is determined primarily by college presidents and deans of admission, many of whom are too engrossed in the business affairs of their own institutions to possess sufficient knowledge of other colleges and universities. Furthermore, many of the executives asked to participate in the U.S. News survey possess non-academic backgrounds, and few have taught within the past decade—not necessarily the people we want evaluating our colleges and universities.
  • U.S. News regularly makes small (and mostly arbitrary) changes to their rankings methodology, which prevent meaningful comparisons between institutions from one year to the next. However, these small adjustments do entice people to buy magazines and/or renew their U.S. News subscriptions.
  • The U.S. News rankings are easily manipulated.  There are numerous, well-documented examples of colleges soliciting applications from unqualified applicants (to “improve” selectivity); requesting nominal donations from alumni (to “improve” giving rates); and bumping students from certain classes (to “improve” class size)—all done for the sole purpose of advancing one’s ranking.  Other colleges simply cheat, and report false numbers, causing students and families to make college-related choices that are based on inaccurate and misleading information.  Some reputable institutions that have been caught lying to U.S. News in the past several years include Tulane University, Claremont McKenna College, Bucknell University, Emory University and George Washington University.
  • Finally, U.S. News does little to capture a college’s impact. Its ranking system focuses almost exclusively on inputs (i.e., money spent, students admitted, and opinions given), rather than on factors measuring student outcomes (i.e. knowledge gained, jobs earned, and graduate degrees attained). Therefore, it is not able to assess what colleges do for and do to students during their undergraduate years. For example, to what extent can a Yale alumna attribute her academic and professional achievement to a Yale education? To what degree is her achievement based on the fact that, like most other Yalies, she possesses a strong work ethic and above-average intelligence, which enabled her to matriculate at Yale, and as predicted, achieve success in subsequent endeavors? Unfortunately, U.S. News cannot answer this question. To be fair, neither can any other rankings system.

CT Quick Take: Student and their families would be wise to ignore college rankings and focus upon the activities which yield information more reflective of undergraduate quality and institutional fit, such as reviewing college guide books, visiting college campuses, talking with counselors and current students, etc. Remember, it’s not about finding the highest ranked college; it’s about finding the right college. And you need more than a list to do that.