Reasons to Hate the U.S. News College Rankings

We’re teaching our kids to say “I don’t care for” rather than “I hate” foods that they find distasteful. But I can’t summon the energy to be polite about the sham going by the title of U.S. News Best Colleges. And just because I’ve resolved here not to parse college ranking systems doesn’t mean I can’t share someone else’s reasons to hate what U.S. News is doing year-by-year…

U.S. News Best Colleges 2014 logoWhile The Atlantic‘s John Tierney acknowledges that we “might as well rail against Cheetos, soft drinks, lotteries, or articles about the Kardashians” as engage in “ululating” about the Best Colleges farce, its continuing influence among prospective students and their parents — and the university leaders trying to lure them — makes it important that we understand the flaws. Read Tierney’s original piece in its entirety, plus the longer essays to which he links, but here’s a partial list of what he and others have found to be profoundly wrong with Best Colleges:

(Among other things, I’ll leave out the staggeringly high value given institutional reputation in this system, since I’ve already written about that problem at length.)

• Not that it actually has the “authoritative precision and rigor” that it implies it possesses, but “U.S. News is always tinkering with the metrics they use, so meaningful comparisons from one year to the next are hard to make. Critics also allege that this is as much a marketing move as an attempt to improve the quality of the rankings: changes in the metrics yield slight changes in the rank orders, which induces people to buy the latest rankings to see what’s changed.”

• There are lots of reasons that American colleges and universities cost too much, but here’s one more: “The U.S. News rankings help to push college costs higher because the formula they use in calculating their rankings rewards schools that spend more money, so colleges and universities do precisely that, and then inevitably have to raise their tuition to cover growing costs.”

• Oh, and the whole thing invites deceit: “Because the rankings have a popular audience, they encourage colleges and universities to game the system – i.e., to do what they can to raise their place in the rankings by, for example, spending lots of money on things the U.S. News formula deems important or by aggressively increasing the size of their applicant pool so they can turn away a higher percentage of their applicants, thus showing themselves to be “more selective” and thereby raising their rank. Moreover, some schools simply cheat.”

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