Criticism Mounts Around Popular Annual College Rankings


Google searches for “university rankings” peak each year in the months following the release of US News & World Report’s annual Best Colleges lists. The company says that around 40 million people read those lists last year; that’s more than 10 times the number of graduating high school seniors in the United States.

The company published its 2022-23 lists on Monday.

The demand for information is evident as higher education, once affordable and accessible, has become more competitive and expensive.

In the nearly four decades since the US News ratings were released in 1983, the college cost it has skyrocketed more than five times for those attending private four-year institutions. The average student graduates with about $30,000 in debt over the past decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which is more than half their average starting salary.

Bob Morse, the chief data strategist who developed much of the ranking methodology, said US News strives to be “the preeminent, objective resource for helping high school students and their families make the most informed decisions about where to go to college.

“We know that students and their families find value in our rankings. We strive to provide you with data and information to help you make important decisions, using rankings as a factor in your college search,” she said.

But some leaders in the education world think rankings like these only make things worse.

At an event last month, US Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called for a “culture change in higher education now.”

“Too often, our best-resourced schools chase rankings that mean little on the measures that really count,” he said. “That ranking system is a joke.”

He criticized “the whole science behind climbing the ranks,” which he said emphasizes riches and affluence rather than ample opportunity.

“We must stop confusing selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege,” she said.

US News rankings are based on a baseline methodology that rates schools against each other on hundreds of data points within categories including graduation rate, resources and reputation.

The methodology has “evolved over time,” Morse said, based on user feedback, discussions with schools and higher education experts, and more. The methodology for the latest rankings “now emphasizes outcome indicators, which together account for 40% of the overall rankings,” she said.

On Friday, Columbia University acknowledged submitting inaccurate data for consideration in university rankings. The school fell from its second-place ranking in 2021 to 18th in the latest national university rankings, raising questions about how easily the rankings can be played.

And yet, experts say the rankings offer a limited view of what success should look like for students seeking higher education, especially as costs rise.

“In 2022, higher education must measure what matters, not just what has become a tradition,” said Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. profit.

“We should recognize and celebrate institutions that help their students achieve social and economic mobility. That mobility boost, especially for students who have historically lagged behind in higher education, is what should qualify as ‘prestigious,’ not the test scores of students when they get to college or the number of people who an institution rejects”.

These institutions are unlikely to be the ones claiming the spotlight in the rankings, experts say.

“For most of us in this country, [college rankings] they’re not really useful for making the right decisions,” said Tomás Monarrez, a labor economist and senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center for Education Policy and Data.

Students should think about their individual goals for a higher education degree and what the return on investment would be for the various ways to get there.

“You don’t want to pay too much for what you’ll get in the job market,” he said.

Instead, some experts point to the US Department of Education. University scorecard, an online tool created during the Obama administration that houses a wealth of data on higher education institutions.

And it comes without the “profit motive in the middle,” Monarrez said.

However, according to US News, nearly 90% of people who visit its ranking site are looking for schools outside of the top 10 national and liberal arts colleges/universities.

If rankings are the weed, however, some experts say the root is a broader investment in higher education.

“The importance of the decision has been accentuated over time due to its price,” said Monarrez, who led the people to the classification in the first place. And “the reason college has become so expensive is mainly because the government has stopped investing in it.”

But education is a public good that benefits the individual who receives it and, in turn, their community at large.

“So the way to turn this around is to start increasing our investments in public universities again,” he said.

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