No. 1 Reason Why College Rankings Are Lame

As many of you know, I’m not a fan of US News and World Report’s college rankings. I think the methodology is dreadful and the college rankings have encouraged colleges to behave very badly.

After a mom emailed me to complain about the rankings, I decided to use this as an opportunity to share one of my biggest pet peeves about US News’ college rankings.

Here’s the pet peeve:  the magazine’s college rankings are a beauty contest.

Reputation has always been the biggest factor in US News & World Report’s college rankings. That’s a major reason why the schools that have a great reputation – deserved or not – monopolize the top spots.

Until the most recent college rankings release, reputation accounted for 25% of a college or university’s ranking.  How the magazine determines reputation is what’s crazy.

Rating a University on a Scale of 1 to 5

Every year, the magazine sends out three surveys to each institution in a particular category, such as national universities or liberal arts colleges. Three administrators in the office of the president, admissions and provost are supposed to fill them out. The folks stuck with this chore are supposed to grade each of their peers on a 1-to-5 scale. The best score is a 5 and the worst a 1.

Any guess which schools get a heap of “5” scores?’

Beyond the automatic high scores of some schools and the crappy scores of others, what has always irked me is that universities and colleges are supposed to know what’s going on at their “peer” institutions.

You can’t tell me, for instance, that administrators at the University of Michigan can assess the academic quality of hundreds of its peers including Kansas State, University of Alabama, University of Chicago, Rutgers, MIT, San Diego State and the College of William & Mary.

Changing the College Ranking Reputation Scores

The magazine got a lot of flack for basing so much of its ranking on these dubious reputation assessments. I suppose that’s one reason why the magazine dropped the reputation rating down slightly to 22.5% of the total score for its latest rankings roll-out. The magazine also shrunk the opinions of the schools themselves to 15% and it added the opinions of high school counselors (7.5%).

Frankly, I don’t think high school counselors are in any better position to measure the reputation of individual schools across the country.   Many counselors know little about the schools outside their own state. In fact, they may know little about schools beyond their own state institutions – if that.

So, as always, be careful how you use college rankings.

More on College Rankings

If you want to learn more about college rankings, here are some previous posts that I’ve written on the subject:

Blaming College Rankings for Runaway College Costs

Why College Rankings Are a Joke

Attending a School with a Lousy College Ranking

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

College of William & Mary image by John Gever. CC 2.0.

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