Steven Gist (USA)

U.S. News and World Report College Rankings

by Steven Gist | February 27, 2012 | Steven Gist (USA) 0 Comments

Understanding how universities and colleges in the U.S. are ranked is not easy. There are multiple ranking systems that compare the large number and variety of institutions of higher education in the U.S. in different ways.  The most well-known ranking system in the U.S. is published by U.S. News and World Report magazine.  It is also the most well-known and commonly-referenced ranking system among non-U.S. students looking to study in the U.S.

When using any ranking system as an assessment tool, it is important to understand how it is formulated, as well as its strengths and limitations.  In this post, I’ll give a brief overview of the structure and methodology used in the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking system.  I’ll also discuss common criticisms of this system, as well as its usefulness as an assessment tool in the college choice process.

The U.S. News college rankings have been around since 1983.  The most current edition ranks 1,526 institutions of higher education, and breaks them down into the following categories:

National Universities – There are 251 national universities in the country (172 public, 101 private, and 7 are for-profits), based on categories developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees; many strongly emphasize research, defined by the Carnegie Foundation as Research Universities (very high research activity), Research Universities (high research activity), and Doctoral/Research Universities.

National Liberal Arts Colleges – The 280 national liberal arts colleges emphasize undergraduate education and award at least 50 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts (defined by the Carnegie Foundation as baccalaureate colleges-arts and sciences).

Regional Universities – Like the national universities, regional universities (as defined by the Carnegie Foundation as universities-master’s larger, medium and smaller programs) provide a full range of undergraduate programs and some master’s level programs. They offer few, if any, doctoral programs. The 626 total regional universities are ranked within four geographic areas: North, South, Midwest, and West.

Regional Colleges – These institutions (defined by the Carnegie Foundation as Baccalaureate Colleges-Diverse; Baccalaureate/Associate Colleges; Associate’s—Public 4-year, Primarily Associate’s; Associate’s-Private Not-for-profit 4-year, Primarily Associate’s; and Associate’s—Private For-profit 4-year, Primarily Associate’s) focus primarily on undergraduate education, just as the liberal arts colleges do, but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. At these schools, at least 10 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded are bachelor’s degrees. There are a total of 370 regional colleges, ranked within four regions: North, South, Midwest, and West.

As indicated in these category descriptions, the classifications are not created by U.S. News, but are based on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which is a highly- respected and widely-used system for categorizing U.S. colleges and universities.

Colleges that are given a numbered ranking by U.S. News (usually the top 75% in each category) are considered tier-one colleges. The remaining 25% in each category are simply listed alphabetically as tier-two colleges.
The U.S. News ranking system uses sixteen criteria in its assessment of colleges and universities.  These are:

  • Acceptance rate
  • Average alumni giving rate
  • Average freshman retention rate
  • Average graduation rate
  • Number of classes with fewer than 20 students
  • Number of classes with more the 50 students
  • Expenditures per student
  • Faculty compensation
  • Number of faculty with Ph.D.’s or terminal degrees
  • Graduate rate performance
  • High school class standing
  • High school college counselor rating scores
  • Peer assessment
  • Number of full-time faculty
  • Average SAT/ACT scores
  • Student to faculty ratio

Most criticisms of the U.S. News ranking system focus on its methodology.  Some argue that the criteria don’t measure a college’s impact on student learning, are subjective and encourage institutions to gather as many applications as possible to appear more selective.  Others point out that peer assessment and college counselor ratings can be very subjective, and favor institutions that are already well known.  The most outspoken critics on this point will call it a popularity contest without much substance.

Another major criticism is that the U.S. News rankings don’t help in trying to find a college or university that is a good fit for a student.  “Fit”, in this case, refers to finding a college or university that matches a student’s academic abilities, maturity level, background, personality and educational goals.

I strongly agree with those who criticize the use of this ranking system without taking “fit” into consideration.  On more than a few occasions, our company has worked with families who sent their son or daughter to a large state or private university because it was a top 100, national university according to the U.S. News rankings.  They did not try to determine if the university would provide the appropriate environment for their child.  In many cases, the students became overwhelmed, made unhealthy choices or simply became lost in the crowd.

Another criticism I have of this ranking system is that it creates the impression that regionally- ranked universities are inferior to nationally-ranked universities.  This is unfortunate since most highly-ranked regional universities (and some regional colleges) would fall somewhere in the 170 to 100 range when compared with national universities, and many of the academic programs offered at these regional universities are as good or better than comparable programs at top-100 national universities.

Valparaiso University, for example, is a regional university that is ranked number four in the Midwest region.  Its College of Engineering, however, is ranked in the top twenty-five among all undergraduate engineering programs in the nation, and its civil engineering program is ranked number four in the nation.

In summary, the strength of the U.S. News and World Report ranking system is that it can help non-U.S. families understand the different types of colleges and universities in the U.S.  It can also provide a somewhat objective framework for assessing general academic quality.  Its main weaknesses are that it does little to help students know if a university is a good “fit” for them, and that it can create the false impression that regionally-ranked colleges and universities are inferior to those that are nationally ranked.

In our work as educational consultants, we regularly use and refer to U.S. News rankings.  However, because of the system’s limitations, we consider ranking as only one of a variety of factors when assessing the overall quality of a university, and whether or not it is a good “fit” for the clients we serve.

As a follow up to this article, I recommend reading Erik Presley’s post about the characteristics of excellence we look for when assessing the quality of a university.

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