The rankings are based on complex formulas that U.S. News invented and that it tweaks from time to time. Inputs include surveys of college leaders and college counselors, as well as statistics on graduation rates, class size, faculty salaries, alumni giving and admissions test scores. U.S. News says these formulas help consumers get information they need and want before they choose a school.
Critics contend the rankings are highly subjective and give students a misleading sense that the college experience can be boiled down to numbers. Some colleges refuse to participate in U.S. News surveys — and receive rankings anyway.
U.S. News has said that 92 percent of 1,391 ranked colleges and universities returned its surveys last year. Some colleges have declined to participate because they say the rankings are counterproductive.
“We just don’t want to play their game and fill out their forms,” said Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis. He said he couldn’t care less that his school is No. 133 on a U.S. News national liberal arts list. “I’d rather be in a place that’s unranked.”
Claremont McKenna and Emory, both ranked highly on U.S. News lists, revealed last year that they overstated admission test scores and other data related to incoming students that made them appear more selective. GWU said it had overstated the high school class rank of its students, leading U.S. News in November to strip the D.C. school of its ranking, which had been 51st among national universities.
Tulane’s discovery of missteps came in December. The dean of the university’s Freeman School of Business, relatively new to his position, alerted top university officials about possible misreporting of data. They hired the law firm Jones Day to investigate.
That review found that the statistical profile of full-time students in the master’s of business administration program had been wrongly reported from 2007 to 2011. Average Graduate Management Admission Test scores had been “falsely increased” by an average of 35 points on an exam that has a maximum score of 800, the review concluded, and the number of completed applications had been exaggerated to make the school look more selective than it was.
Tulane said the evidence implicated a former business school employee whom it would not identify. “This was not inadvertent,” Tulane Provost Michael A. Bernstein said. “It was a goal-oriented manipulation.”
The business school, which U.S. News had ranked 43rd in the nation for full-time MBA programs, is now unranked. Bernstein said such incidents are especially painful for all of the university officials, students and faculty who are committed to academic honesty.