On Tuesday, US News and World Report released its 2017 Best Colleges Rankings. The report – now in its 32nd year – sorts more than 1,800 US schools into categories, then rates them on academic quality.
Over the years, the rankings have come under fire from many directions. Some colleges have refused to share data with US News. The White House also expressed concern about the rankings: In 2013, President Obama announced that the government would release its own ratings. (The plan was abandoned in 2015, amid heavy criticism by college and university presidents. Instead, the US Department of Education now has a website that allows students to compare schools on size, location and mission, among other metrics.)
The ensuing debate has divided educators into several camps: those who see the rankings as a path to increasing their institutions' application numbers, or as a valuable resource for students, and those who want higher education to be about more than data crunching – although plenty hope for both.
"My impression is that rankings have become particularly important to college and university administrators, who are anxious for their school to rise in the rankings. They believe that such a rise will bring more and better-prepared students," says Patricia Albjerg Graham, a leading historian of American education and a professor emerita of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.
Some colleges are certainly concerned about the effect of a drop in their rankings. On Tuesday, Peter Henry, dean of New York University's Stern School of Business, emailed students after the university's rankings dropped when the school failed to provide some data. He took responsibility for the confusion and promised students to "further tighten the procedures for data submission so such lapses do not recur."
Other schools emphasize that numbers fail to capture the diversity of the college experience. What students want from their experience varies substantially across institutions and programs of study. So does their financial status after graduation: Schools with a high number of graduates in technology and the sciences will likely fare better in "alumni giving" measures than those that educate teachers, artists, or musicians.
Of course, educators are not the ones making the decision about which college to attend. With 20.5 million students in US higher education as of this fall, the question is: Do US News rankings influence prospective students?
The experience of Reed College, a liberal arts college in Portland, Ore., may suggest not. Between 1995, when the college stopped reporting data to US News, and 2005, applications rose by 27 percent. Mean SAT scores are now higher, and the proportion of professors with PhDs has increased. In 2016, it was rated one of CollegeData's "most difficult" schools for gaining admission, with just 39 percent of almost 4,000 applicants accepted.
Though she says you can't avoid rankings, Elizabeth Heaton, a college admissions consultant at College Coach in Watertown, Mass., believes "they come up less frequently than they used to." College Coach, which works with 32,000 families on college admissions each year, has seen students looking at fit, location, and cost more than rankings. Even when students are looking at rankings, they show a "willingness to consider all different kinds of rankings," whereas historically the main source of this data was US News.
There are some exceptions to that trend. Ms. Heaton mentions that "rankings can be a go-to" for families who are unfamiliar with the US school system. Families looking for a very specific major are also more likely to turn to rankings to guide the decision-making process.
Students may apply to top-ranked colleges without ever looking at the rankings. As Dr. Graham notes, "The top dozen or so institutions in the rankings are generally well known to informed applicants," giving them an international brand awareness that can push up applications.