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The College Ranking Process Is Under Scrutiny. What That Means If You’re Deciding Where to Go

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

It’s March Madness season, but if you’re a high school senior, another type of March Madness is going on. College admission decisions are coming out, and students will have until early May to pick a school.

Many students and families consult college rankings to help figure the best place to go. Since 1983, U.S. News & World Report has published the most famous list. Now it competes with lists produced by the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, and Princeton Review. The Princeton Review even ranks everything from campus food to the top party schools.

But attitudes toward these school rankings are shifting—including from some of the schools themselves. The 2022-2023 college admissions decisions come out at a time when the U.S. News rankings in particular have come under a significant amount of scrutiny. Columbia University math professor Michael Thaddeus found inaccuracies in the data that the school submitted, causing it to fall from second place to 18th place. Columbia later withdrew from the ranking entirely.

Several top law schools including Yale and Harvard and Stanford said they would stop submitting to the U.S. News ranking of best law schools, while about a dozen top medical schools from Mount Sinai to the University of Pennsylvania will stop submitting data to the best medical schools ranking. And a federal judge sentenced a dean of Temple University’s business school to prison for submitting false information about programs to U.S. News so that the school’s ranking would go up.

But it’s not just the U.S. News & World report rankings. College administrators have long been critical of other university rankings, arguing that they often include subjective criteria for some rankings.

Does this controversy mean that students should stop taking ranking into account when deciding which college to attend? It’s complicated. TIME spoke to several college guidance counselors who say they have been steering students and parents away from the rankings for years because they don’t think some factors used to compile the lists—things like endowment numbers or low acceptance rates—are helpful to students.

But, they say as long as society continues to judge students on where they went to college, rankings are not going away anytime soon.

How college rankings became such a big deal

Over the past 40 years, the U.S. News college rankings helped many colleges and universities with just regional reputations gain national name recognition. According to Colin Diver, author of Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It, the first rankings in the early 1980s came about at a time when colleges and universities were becoming more competitive. Transportation costs were declining, making it easier for people to get on an airplane to go to college. The economy shifted from blue-collar manufacturing and trade jobs to knowledge-based white-collar jobs, and college was seen as essential to participating in the new global economy.

“Most of us in the education business in the 1980s saw the rankings as a kind of education version of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition,” says Diver. “But then it became clear that the potential applicant pool, mostly high school juniors and seniors and their advisors were taking them quite seriously. And so we had to start taking them seriously.” Diver was President of Reed College, which made headlines in 1995 for pulling out of the U.S. News rankings because it believed the methodology was flawed.

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Adam Nguyen, who used to review applications for Columbia University, confirms that colleges and universities are fixated on the rankings. “All colleges would say the rankings don’t really matter, but behind the scenes, we celebrated when Columbia moved up in the rankings,” he says. “It helps raise money. It helps get alumni excited.”

And colleges and universities have figured out how to game the rankings to move up. For example, Nguyen explains that because part of the U.S. News methodology includes a survey of how colleges are viewed by officials at other schools, colleges would wine-and-dine the survey voters. To bolster the metric that values small class sizes in time for the rankings that come out at the beginning of the academic year, administrations schedule smaller seminars in the fall semester and put more large introductory classes in the spring semester.

But rankings have also become incredibly important for students after they graduate, too. “Rankings are important because graduate schools use them for evaluating undergraduate applicants, and employers take into account where you went to school,” says Nguyen. “Now, is that always accurate? No. And future employers know that too. They do interview you. They look at your grades. They look at your resume. But they do put some weight on the name brand of the institution.

“And in the real world, there’s always going to be a set of schools that is better than another set of schools. You can’t have everything being equal. So that’s the reality that we have to live with.”

Despite the critiques about its methodology, U.S. News & World Report says, “We expect schools to accurately report their data and that administrative and academic leaders not only verify that data, but also act transparently and be accountable for their actions.” The publication maintains that it’s providing a service to students, arguing, “With admissions more competitive and less transparent, and tuition increasingly expensive, we believe students deserve access to all the data and information necessary to make the right decision.” The rankings, U.S. News says, “should be one component in a prospective student’s decision-making process.”

How to think about college rankings when choosing a school

Shereem Herndon-Brown, who helps high school families navigate the college admissions process, points out that U.S. News college rankings don’t accurately reflect the prestige of the top historically Black colleges and universities like Howard University (89), Morehouse College (124), and Spelman College (51). Black families go into the process thinking the U.S. News rankings are “slightly skewed” because “there’s no HBCUs in the top 50,” he says. “So I think they know going into the process, ‘this [list] wasn’t really written for us.’”

Read more: African-American History Finally Gets Its Own AP Class

Herndon-Brown urges college applicants to focus on four factors: costs, location, academic major, and career opportunities.

Along with another college admissions expert Timothy L. Fields, Herndon-Brown interviewed over 200 families to co-write the 2022 guide The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions and found only one was focused on college rankings. Fields sums up most parents’ primary concerns: “Everybody else was like, I want my child to be close to me. I want my child to be in a safe place. I need to factor in, are they going to get scholarships? Does this institution have accommodations for their learning differences?”

Stacy Richardson, Director Of College Counseling at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., has seen factors that matter to students and parents shift during the COVID-19 pandemic. Campus visits, for instance, are taking on more importance than ever before.

“I don’t know that [the U.S. News rankings] are useful for students right now,” Richardson says. “There have been a lot of students who felt confined during the pandemic. They didn’t feel like they were having a high school experience that was normal. And across the nation, we’re hearing more about students having mental health concerns. With that in mind, I’m always thinking, when I’m talking with students, that it’s going to be important for them to be comfortable where they are and know what their resources are. I feel like that is more indicative of the type of experience they want to have than rankings about the salary of the professors that they are employing.”

More rankings of schools by the quality of the college experience would be a welcome addition. “The system is broken,” says Nguyen, who now advises families going through the college admissions process as a founder of Ivy Link. “There should be some sort of ranking that should reflect what’s important and what makes students successful when they get [to college], and we’re not there yet.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com