How to Use the U.S. News College Rankings

on March 24, 2017

Many teenagers and parents consider U.S. News’ college rankings to be the Bible for academic quality. Detractors, who primarily come from academia, have criticized the popular rankings as a flawed and superficial way to measure colleges.


Before turning to U.S. News’ college rankings – or rankings from any other media organization – you should understand more about what they can and can’t do.


Here are four things you should know:


1. Reputation is a Major Factor


U.S. News relies heavily on reputation when calculating its rankings of its current crop of 1,374 colleges and universities. Almost a quarter of the score depends on an institution’s reputation among its peer institutions, and in some cases, high school counselors. 


In the premiere categories of national universities and national liberal arts colleges, two-thirds of the reputational score relies on peer assessments and a third on high school counselors. In the regional university and regional college groupings, U.S. News only uses peer assessments.


Here’s how the reputational scores are generated:


Each year U.S. News sends a peer assessment survey to the offices of the president, provost and admissions at each institution in a particular peer group. Administrators are asked to rate each institution on a scale of one (marginal) to five (distinguished).


When contemplating the magnitude of this task, let’s take a look at the National University category that contains 310 institutions. You could rightly ask what do administrators at Auburn, Hofstra and Kent State and Yale know about what’s happening at Duke, Marquette, San Diego State and Virginia Tech.


To reduce the flak about administrators grading each other, U.S. News at some point invited some high school counselors to join in but they can’t be expected to know any more than college officials.


When the administrators aren’t sure how to rank an institution (a completely understandable dilemma), relying on the previous U.S. News’ rankings to fill out the annual surveys is a natural solution. Of course, this behavior only reinforces the status-quo scores.


The reputational scores are hard to budge which is one reason why the nation’s oldest, wealthiest universities and colleges, such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Amherst and Williams have held a hammerlock on the top rankings since the beginning.


Years ago, a former Supreme Court justice in Michigan took aim at the futility of rating peer institutions by asking about 100 of his legal colleagues to rank a list of 10 private and public law schools.


When the judge tabulated the results, the law school at Penn State came in right in the middle of the pack. Here was the problem with this result: At the time, Penn State didn’t have a law school. So much for relying on reputation.


2. Rankings Don’t Measure Quality of Teaching


U.S. News uses proxies for educational quality but they don’t necessarily sync with the all-important outcomes. A college could do a tremendous job of producing graduates who are critical thinkers, articulate speakers and excellent writers and it wouldn’t boost the college’s point total.


So what does U.S. News use as proxies?  Along with the academic reputation score, the biggest factors are graduation and freshmen retention rates that also count for 22.5 percent of the score. Sticking it out and graduating in a timely manner, however, doesn’t indicate if those graduates received a quality education.


The next biggest factor that U.S. News counts is faculty resources (20 percent), which includes class sizes, professor pay and the percentage of faculty who have earned their terminal degree. There haven’t been any studies that link higher faculty pay with better quality teaching. Student-faculty ratio account for 5 percent of the score, as does the proportion of faculty who work full time.


The student-faculty ratio might be meaningful except there are many colleges where graduate students — and even undergraduates — do a large chunk of the teaching. The professor figures also can include professors who teach only graduate students.


3. Rankings Contribute to Higher Prices


If you look at the rankings methodology, you would notice that student debt is curiously absent as a measure. It also doesn’t penalize institutions that charge exorbitant price tags and offer mediocre financial aid.


Colleges and universities that produce graduates with high amounts of debt aren’t hurt in the rankings beauty contest. This arguably has encouraged institutions eager to advance in the rankings to spend more money because, at least as the rankings are concerned, there is no downside.


College costs continue to outstrip inflation and there now are universities whose cost of attendance for one year has reached the $70,000 mark. Just a decade ago, college costs reached the $50,000 mark for tuition and room/board when a spokesman for George Washington University said GWU believed it was the first university to reach that milestone.


U.S. News’ methodology is skewed to favor institutions that cater to the rich. These students are more likely to be able to afford to pay for college and thus stay in school and graduate in four years. They also are more likely to have better standardized test scores (scores are highly correlated with income), which is another measure. This has contributed to a rise in merit scholarships for rich students and an overall reduction in need-based financial aid for students who can’t afford college.


4. Rankings are Valuable


When my son’s best friend was deciding which liberal arts college he would attend, he enjoyed bountiful choices including some highly respected candidates such as Grinnell, Whitman and Colgate. Unsure which to pick, he simply decided to attend the liberal arts campus with the highest ranking that happened to be Carleton College in Minnesota. It worked out for him, but selecting a college simply by U.S. News’ rank can backfire.


College rankings, whether they are from U.S. News, Forbes, Money, Washington Monthly, Kiplinger, the Princeton Review or another source, can be valuable if they are used appropriately. The best way to use these rankings is to consult them to generate ideas. Beyond the name-brand research universities and some of their own state institutions, families typically have little knowledge about the vast array of colleges and universities scattered across the country.


An excellent way to generate ideas is to take a hard look at the institutions in the following U.S. News categories that don’t get as much attention:

  • National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Regional Universities
  • Regional Colleges

Don’t assume that the campus ranked No. 1 must be better than the one ranked 10th or 20th or 50th. Just use these rankings as a tip sheet and then get busy researching these institutions on your own.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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