The U.S. News Rankings Don’t Mean Much

The U.S. News Rankings Don’t Mean Much

When the 2023 edition of the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings was released, New York’s Columbia University experienced one of the largest tumbles in the history of the list. 

After being in the Top 10 in every year except one (when they were #11) since 1998, and reaching as high as #2 last year, Columbia came in at #18 in 2023.

What happened? Did they have a mass defection of faculty? Did they stop teaching…I don’t know…history? Did the SAT scores or GPAs of incoming students go down? Surely for a school to drop that much, something substantive must be different between the Columbia of 2022 and the Columbia of 2023.

Actually, no. The difference is that Columbia had been systematically reporting incorrect data, a practice exposed by one of their own math professors who dug into the numbers Columbia touted for faculty with terminal degrees and the percentage of classes below 20 students, and found them implausible.

What happened to Columbia is merely the latest example of why it is silly to try to create an ordinal ranking of the quality of colleges. Columbia today is not different than Columbia last year, but somehow it dropped because of the largely arbitrary and meaningless formula that goes into the U.S. News rankings.

What the rankings primarily capture is the wealth of the institution and the wealth of the students who attend it. They have little to no relationship to what students experience and learn when at a particular school.

Don’t get me wrong, all the highly ranked institutions are excellent universities, but the idea that you can rank universities on an ordinal scale with any kind of precision is madness that no one believes is actually possible or meaningful.

And yet schools, parents, and students invest this list with meaning, buying into a bogus metric of prestige over more substantive criteria.

If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan. Focusing on rankings distorts the discussion we should be having when it comes to students applying to and choosing a college. It is far more important to find the right fit as a student than it is to attend the institution that has the most prestigious rank.

As a graduate of the University of Illinois, I would like to believe that its rank at #41 means that it is objectively far superior to say, the University of Iowa at #83, but no, it is not. It would be difficult to find two schools more similar when it comes to what one is likely to experience while enrolled. Do not buy into the notion that this gap means anything substantive.

The questions students should be asking about schools as they make their choice should be things like:

Does this institution offer the major I want?

Do they have the opportunities for extracurriculars I want?

Do I feel comfortable in the campus atmosphere?

Could I live where the school is located for at least four years (if looking at residential college)?

And most of all:

What is a degree from this school going to cost? 

I have heard horrible tales of students taking on tens of thousands of dollars of extra loans in order to attend an only slightly more prestigious institution. That increased cost will never be worth it.

You can’t eat prestige. 

Columbia is far from the first institution to get busted submitting faulty data.  Emory University (in 2012), Claremont McKenna College (2012) and Tulane University (in 2013) were all past violators. Other schools such as Clemson University went to absurd lengths within the rules to boost their rankings, including rating every single of their peer institutions “below average” on the reputational survey portion of the rankings.

I’m not a big fan of any rankings of colleges that don’t take into account the necessity of the right fit for the right student, but if rankings are important, you can look at which ones do the best at graduating Pell-eligible students.

Or consider the Washington Monthly National University Rankings, which uses a methodology they say is “based on their (the university’s) contribution to the public good in three broad categories, social mobility, research, and promoting public service.”

While elite universities such as Stanford, Penn, Princeton, and MIT still top the Washington Monthly list, schools like National Louis University and Utah State, which don’t even factor into the main U.S. News rankings come in at #18 and #22 respectively, above Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and yes…Columbia University.

We can do better than continuing to invest importance in a measurement we know is without substance. Don’t be lured by the shiny object. Invest in the school that’s the best fit for your personal desires and values.