U.S. News& World Report just released the 2015 version of its famous college rankings (which, frankly isn’t very different from the 2014 version). Princeton is No. 1. Harvard is No. 2. Yale is 3. And it turns out, there are three No. 4s — Columbia, Stanford and Chicago. Stanford and Chicago both shared No. 5 last year, but this year, they got just that much better to move on up.
What’s “better” to U.S. News?
Let’s look at how the magazine concocts its annual college rankings. If you still think the rankings mean much of anything after reading the methodology (which is the same as last year’s), then let’s talk about this bridge I have for sale …..
Here is the breakdown of factors and the weight each are given, as well as some commentary taken from a post I wrote last year:
Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent): The U.S. News ranking formula gives significant weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence. The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – to account for intangibles at peer institutions such as faculty dedication to teaching.
Do you really think that officials at competitive schools are the best folks to gauge the academic excellence of a rival, or the faculty dedication to teaching at other schools? If you ask college presidents and provosts and deans of admissions about their involvement in the rankings, some will tell you, off the record, that they don’t really know enough to accurately evaluate competitors. But they fill out the forms anyway, or, at least some of them do. U.S. News allows those being surveyed to say that they “don’t know” but that raises the question about how many “don’t knows” there are vs. actual answers.)
To help with this data point, U.S. News says 2,152 counselors at public high schools were also surveyed (from schools that won a gold, silver or bronze medal winner in the 2013 U.S. News rankings of Best High Schools) plus 400 from leading private schools. The magazine doesn’t tell you that a 2012 report on the state of college admissions issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling said that most counselors don’t think the U.S. News rankings accurately represent information about colleges.
Here are the other factors and their weights in the overall U.S. News rankings calculations:
Retention — 22.5 percent
Faculty resources — 20 percent
Student selectivity — 12.5 percent
Financial resources — 10 percent
Graduation rate performance — 7.5 percent
Alumni giving rate — 5 percent
Is it fair to rank schools with vastly different financial resources? Is it fair to pit schools that graduate more investment bankers than poets and teachers?
Regarding a school’s selectivity rating, the magazine says:
A school’s academic atmosphere is determined in part by the abilities and ambitions of the students.
We use three components: We factor in the admissions test scores for all enrollees who took the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT and the Composite ACT score (65 percent of the selectivity score); the proportion of enrolled freshmen at National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes or in the top quarter at Regional Universities and Regional Colleges (25 percent); and the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to applicants (10 percent).
SAT And ACT scores don’t do a good job predicting how well students will do in college. In fact, the SAT has been so troubled that it has been overtaken by the ACT as the most popular college admissions test, and it is again being revamped to modernize it. And let’s not even talk about the very smart students who don’t do well on standardized tests.Why should these scores carry any weight here?
The acceptance rate data point is also questionable in that students now apply to many more schools than they used to, in part because the Common Application has made it easier. With more applications and the same fixed number of open seats, of course acceptance rates are going to decline.
If, by now, you think the rankings are useful, there’s this bridge….