How the US News Rankings Work, How Schools Game the System, and Why it Matters to You

When it comes to deciding which college to go to, probably no other factor matters to students more (on the average) than a school’s US News & World Report ranking.

Ever since the first list of “America’s Top 50 Colleges” was published in 1983, prospective students (and parents) all over the US have turned to the list as an easy way to know what schools were “good” and which ones weren’t so hot.

After all, who wants to go to a lower ranked school if they can get in to one of those ranked at the top of the heap?

According to US News & World Report, their ranking system rests on “two pillars” that combine “quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality” with their own “researched view of what matters in education.” Sounds simple enough, right?

In practice it’s a lot more complicated (and a lot less objective) than it sounds. The ranking begins by looking at a school’s “Carnegie classification,” a designation used by folks in higher ed to classify schools based on their national reach and the types of degree programs they offer in order to break them down into four main categories. After dividing up the schools, US News next looks at “up to 16 indicators of academic excellence” that include the opinions of big wigs at similar schools (a measure of the school’s “reputation”), how many students stay until graduation, what percentage of students are admitted compared to those who applied (also known as “selectivity”), various financial indicators, how much money alumni donate every year, and, in some cases, how the schools are ranked by high school college counselors.

Unfortunately the whole process isn’t as objective as it sounds.

“Reputation” really equates to “popularity,” and since “reputation” is measured by evaluations from peer institutions, once a school establishes a high reputation they tend to stay that way because its in everyone in that school’s peer group to keep things the way they are. Just as the popular kids in high school tend to have each other’s back (until someone really messes up), popular schools tend to vote for each other. Even worse, since “reputation” is based on evaluations from other colleges and universities, it’s not a real-world measure of how people outside of academia view the schools being ranked.

“Selectivity,” while it sounds like a good indicator of the quality of the school (if they reject a lot of applicants they have to be good, right?), it’s also one of the easiest measures for the schools on the list to “game.” All they have to do is encourage as many people to apply as possible and then reject most of them. Poof! Now you’re “selective!”

Since financial measures are an important part of a school’s ranking, another way that colleges can game the system is to spend as much money as possible on facilities, faculty salaries, student housing and fundraising. Of course, the money has to come from somewhere. Guess where it comes from? You guessed it: higher tuition, higher fees and higher room and board charges. But at least the school’s got a better ranking, right?

“Academic quality” of new students is an important ranking factor, too. And how is “academic quality” measured? By test scores and GPAs, of course! In order to attract these students, schools looking to move up (or maintain) their rankings will often resort to tricks such as “buying” top students by offering high-scoring students lucrative scholarships and may target their recruitment towards high schools (or school systems) known to have a high rate of “grade inflation” (giving out lots of “A’s”). And since it’s your most recent ACT or SAT score that “counts,” some schools have even paid students to re-take the exams after they’ve been admitted and before the cut-off date for scores used by US News.

Finally (and perhaps most paradoxically), one of the other ways that schools can raise their scores is to lower their academic standards so that students have an easier time reaching graduation, thus boosting the graduation rate. Another way to boost graduation rates is to offer incentives to students who stick it out until graduation, especially if they’re going to graduate in four years.

We’re not saying that the US News & World Report rankings are useless.

They do, in many cases, reflect the prevailing attitudes about the quality of at least the top schools. But it’s important that you understand what they represent, and that what they represent may not reflect what you’re interested in. Just as you’d never rely on one person’s review on Yelp to sway your opinion of a restaurant or let one Amazon reviewer make your buying decision for you, don’t just rely on US News to choose what college is right for you.

Try out our MyRank School Finder to see how schools rank specifically for you! 

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