U.S. News college rankings get new scrutiny

Correction: An earlier version this story misstated the rank of Princeton University. It is tied with Harvard University atop the U.S. News list of best national universities, not behind Harvard. This version has been corrected.

September 12, 2012

How much suspense can there be in a ranking that lists Harvard and Princeton as the best national universities, followed by Yale?

Yet the U.S. News & World Report annual college rankings, released Wednesday, are closely scrutinized in higher education. College presidents often denounce the rankings as trivial but pay enormous attention to them because the rankings are seen as the top arbiter of prestige in a vast, costly and unruly marketplace.

The 2012-13 rankings come amid questions about whether and how college administrators manipulate data used in the magazine’s formulas. Claremont ­McKenna College in California and Emory University in Georgia acknowledged this year that school officials had inflated SAT scores of incoming freshmen in key reports. Ultimately, U.S. News concluded that the 2011-12 rankings of the two schools weren’t affected.

In Maryland, Virginia and the District, rankings for prominent schools categorized as national universities are little changed this year. Johns Hopkins University remains 13th. Georgetown is 21st, up from 22nd. The University of Virginia moves to 24th, from 25th.

Others on that list were the College of William & Mary (33, unchanged); George Washington University (51, from 50); the University of Maryland (58, from 55); Virginia Tech (72, from 71). American University moved up five places, to 77th.

George Mason University, ranked 139th nationally, was named the top “up-and-coming” national university, moving into a tie in that category with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (which is 160th nationally).

Peter Stearns, provost of GMU, said the university wished that it were moving up faster on the overall national ranking but was pleased to be listed as a rising star. He said there is no way to avoid paying attention to the rankings.

“It’s sort of fun to see small movements,” Stearns said, “but it’s important not to take it too seriously.”

Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, is a prominent critic of the rankings. His school, which happens to be ranked 133rd on the list of national liberal arts colleges, up from 139th, doesn’t participate in U.S. News surveys that provide key input for the list.

“The rankings purport to do something that they can’t do well: to give an objective opinion on a single scale with a lot of data, on what is the single best college in the country,” Nelson said. “We don’t think the value of an education can be quantified.”

But Bob Morse, who oversees the U.S. News list, said its credibility in academia is strong.

“We are getting record-high traffic, and interest in rankings is at its highest level ever,” Morse wrote in an e-mail. He said that the data issues that arose at Emory and Claremont McKenna “are likely to help our credibility because both demonstrated how important the integrity of the data is.”

The U.S. News list, while the best-known, is hardly the only entry in the field. Forbes and Kiplinger, among others, rank colleges for value and results. The Washington Monthly ranks them for their contributions to the country.

Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, said the U.S. News rankings celebrate the elite. More attention, he said, should be paid to the unsung.

“It’s not that we lack good elite schools,” Glastris said. “It’s that the average, or below-average, college or university, where the vast bulk of students go, are trying to behave like Harvard, rather than do the best job with the students that they have.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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