U.S. News College Rankings: Are They Accurate?

Top 5 List

September 13, 2012

In a few months, high school seniors will be applying to college. Once the applications are in and admissions decisions are out, students must decide which school is the right one for them. A number of factors go into their decision, but a common indicator that students and parents look at is college rankings, often the U.S. News and World Report rankings, which were recently released for 2013. However, despite the fact that the U.S. News annual rankings are so widely observed, many college officials are skeptical of its accuracy.

What's the methodology behind the ranking system? U.S. News and World Report ranks schools according to the following indicators, in descending order of weight: undergraduate academic reputation, retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate performance, and alumni giving rate. The undergraduate academic reputation score is primarily based on peer assessment surveys, in which colleges and universities rate each other on a scale of 1 to 5. Retention is based on a combination of the six-year graduation rate (the proportion of students who graduate within six years) and the freshman retention rate. Student selectivity is based on incoming students' SAT and ACT scores, and graduation rate performance is measured by comparing the actual graduation rate with U.S. News's predicted rate for the class. There are separate lists for National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges.

Most of these statistics come from the schools themselves. Unfortunately, that's where part of the inaccuracy of the list originates. The Washington Post reports that some schools, including Claremont McKenna College and Emory University, falsified information regarding SAT scores of incoming freshmen. U.S. News assured that its 2011-2012 rankings were not affected once the misinformation was identified, and Bob Morse, overseer of the U.S. News list, claims that the issue actually demonstrates how important the accuracy of the data used is.

However, it's not just misstated statistics that reduce the credibility of the list. As CBS MoneyWatch mentions, college rankings lead to higher college spending, as U.S. News puts weight on how much schools invest in new facilities and teacher salaries. Unfortunately, it does not rank schools higher for keeping tuition costs low or penalize colleges when their students graduate with a large debt.

Christopher Nelson, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, states in The Washington Post that an inherent flaw in the college ranking system is that it attempts to "give an objective opinion on a single scale with a lot of data, on what is the single best college in the country." However, as Nelson asserts, "We don't think the value of an education can be quantified."

It is important for students to recognize that the ranking system has flaws and not to base their decision of which college to attend solely on how highly ranked potential schools are. More important decision-making factors include location, college environment, and the school's strength in a desired course of study.

Compiled by Aneesha Jhingan


"4 reasons to ignore U.S. News' college rankings," cbsnews.com, September 12, 2012, Lynn O'Shaughnessy

"How U.S. News Calculates Its Best College Rankings" usnews.com, September 11, 2012, Sam Flanigan and Robert Morse

"U.S. News college rankings get new scrutiny," washingtonpost.com, September 11, 2012, Nick Anderson

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