New US News College Rankings Come Out Soon – Should You Care?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

gold-medal-mdThe 2014 US News college rankings will be released on September 10.  Colleges across the country wait anxiously every year to see if they have moved up in the rankings.  Students and parents wait anxiously to learn about the “best colleges in the country.” Why?  I think as parents and students in the college search process, we are all anxious for someone to make our choices easier.  There are so many colleges out there,  2-year, 4-year, public, private, more selective, less selective, big, small, near home, far away, etc, that it’s hard to know where to even start looking.  We want someone to say “Look here!  We’ve done the research.  We can tell you what schools are the best!”

Are the US News college rankings really the answer we have been looking for?  My answer is no, they are not. 

It is clear to me that the US News college rankings are a driving force in college applications.  I compiled the statistics below from the 2013US News college rankings compared to the acceptance rates for fall of 2013.  As a general trend, at least with the top schools on the lists, the higher the school falls on the ranking, the lower the acceptance rate.  In other words, the top ranked schools are getting way more applicants than they could ever admit.

These rankings are from the US News best national universities ranking:

Graphing the data confirms the trend between ranking and acceptance rate:

For Liberal Arts Colleges (LAC), the correlation isn’t quite as strong, but it still exists:

Did the rankings cause such a high number of applicants and therefore a very low acceptance rate, or did the very low acceptance rate cause the schools to be ranked so highly? I do not question that the schools listed above are among the top colleges in the country based on public reputation. However, I do believe that top students are largely basing their decisions on where to apply on the rankings that the schools are receiving, causing the record low acceptance rates we have seen in the last few years.  I think students are looking for the prestige of being accepted at a school that is ranked as one of the best in the country.  There’s not really anything wrong with that, in theory.  If all other things were equal, wouldn’t we all like to say we attended one of the best colleges in the country?

But is being “the best” something that can be measured in an exact way and does everyone agree on what makes a school “the best?”

US News bases their rankings of national universities and LACs on a combination of factors.  This breakdown comes from their website:

  • Undergraduate Academic Reputation – 22.5%
  • Retention(6-year graduation rate & freshman retention) – 20%
  • Faculty Resources – 20%
  • Student Selectivity – 15%
  • Financial Resources (school’s per student spending) – 10%
  • Graduation Rate Performance – 7.5%
  • Alumni Giving Rate – 5%

As you can see, the methodology doesn’t include any attempt to figure in cost or value for the money.  In a 2011 New Yorker article, “The Order of Things – What College Rankings Really Tell Us,” Malcolm Gladwell calls the methodology used by US News to rank colleges “flimsy at best.”  He says, “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution – how well a college manages to inform, inspire and challenge its students.”  Gladwell’s article pokes holes in each of the seven categories listed above.  His main point is that ranking is subjective – who ranks something and the formula used will lead to different results.

How does US News know that the formula they use is going to result in your child picking the right mix of colleges to apply to that will lead to the greatest future success?  They don’t.

In fact, college expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy, from The College Solution and CBS Money Watch maintains that the US News college rankings have hurt, not helped,  countless students.  She has written several great posts on this topic, including “4 reasons to ignore U.S. News’ college rankings.”

Can I say that I have ignored the US News college rankings entirely?  No.  In fact, I include them in my list of My Top 10 College Search Information Websites. But on that listing I say to “take the rankings with a grain of salt” and to use them as a tool to develop an initial list of colleges to consider. US News is a great place to get initial information on hundreds of colleges.  However, you could use any college search website in a similar manner without getting hung up on rankings.

Relying on the US News rankings, or any other ranking system for that matter, as the “be all and end all” resource in your kid’s college choice process can easily lead to frustration.

  • What if your student’s favorite schools are far apart on the list?  (This happened with my oldest daughter.)
  • Is there going to be a huge difference in quality of education between #4, #37 and #63?
  • What if you don’t have the means to pay for the “top schools,” even with financial aid?
  • What if your student doesn’t have the grades and/or test scores for the “best schools?”
  • What if some schools your student likes are on the national university list and some are on the LAC list?
  • What if your student is interested in some schools on the national lists and some on regional lists? (This happened with my oldest daughter.)

How will you ever determine which schools are better? 

You will need to put away the ranking lists and have your student come up with his or her own criteria for finding the best fit.  No college ranking service will be able to determine the best school for your student’s unique set of needs.  Only your student, probably with your help, will be able to determine that.  Of course it isn’t an exact science, and there are probably a handful or two of schools that would work just as well.  That’s the fun part of doing your own ranking.  You get to decide who the ultimate winner is, by whatever method you want, rather than relying on somebody else’s idea of the “best college.”

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