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Despite Ongoing Controversy, U.S. News & World Report Rankings Continue to Dominate the College Admissions Scene

Sep 19, 2023

Originally published on Linkedin.

For decades, college rankings have been a crucial resource for students, parents, and educators alike. These rankings aim to provide valuable insights into higher education institutions, with each ranking system—from the Wall Street Journal to Forbes to U.S. News—evaluating different metrics that lend insight into schools’ prestige and excellence. However, in recent years, these systems have faced an increasing amount of scrutiny and pushback. As a result, the credibility and fairness of U.S. News and World Report’s Best College Ranking has taken significant blows within the last two years. Yet, despite the criticism it has encountered, the ranking continues to be a commanding influence in the realm of higher education assessments.

The majority of pushback has centered on the graduate rather than undergraduate ranking systems. One of the first controversies came in April of 2022, when an investigation report found that members of the administration at the University of Southern California had instructed officials to willfully exclude data in their report to U.S. News & World Report with the intention of boosting their graduate school ranking. In November of the same year, Harvard Law School and Yale Law School announced that they would no longer participate in the law schools rankings; the schools were ranked #4 and #1 respectively. Both schools critiqued the ranking’s socioeconomic unfairness, arguing that it privileges schools with greater financial means and devalues graduates who choose to pursue lower-income careers in public service by considering graduates’ median annual income as a metric.

In a press release regarding the school’s decision, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken stated that “one of the most troubling aspects of the U.S. News rankings is that it discourages law schools from providing critical support for students seeking public interest careers and devalues graduates pursuing advanced degrees.”

At the same time, U.S. News and World Report’s undergraduate rankings have not been without their own share of controversy. In July of 2022, Columbia University—ranked #2 at the time—was removed from the rankings altogether after the data that contributed to its ranking proved to be unsubstantiated, an error first caught by Columbia math professor Dr. Michael Thaddeus. This March, Bard College announced that they would withdraw from this year’s rankings due to the inequity perpetuated by the ranking’s financial considerations.

The sway of the organization’s ranking system is evident even in Bard President Leon Botstein’s statement on the matter: “We have allowed teaching and scholarship in America to be driven by a magazine.”

However, in spite of these institution’s critiques, a media company continues to shape collective notions of universities’ prestige and prominence. As U.S. News and World Report released their rankings yesterday, parents and students are clamoring to read the results—and colleges are likewise eager to tout their placement on the list.

The ongoing dominance of U.S. News and World Report’s rankings is due in part to its long-standing tradition and its stature as a trustworthy source. Established in 1983, this ranking system has weathered the test of time and offered seemingly objective assurance that a given school will be a good investment for a student. Particularly as the landscape of college admissions becomes more complex and competitive than ever before, rankings provide a simplified metric that is readily consumed and trusted by the public.

In conclusion, while individual institutions may choose to challenge the validity and significance of college rankings, the reality is that they remain an integral part of the higher education landscape. For students and parents alike, rankings offer a distilled snapshot of what a college or university can offer. While the methods and metrics may be debated, the appetite for such rankings shows no sign of abating.

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