When looking for a ranking of the top colleges in America, many parents, students and alumni have relied mainly on one source for the past three decades: U.S. News and World Report.
Now, college ranking is all the rage. There are numbered lists for every taste, each with a unique data-crunching formula. While U.S. News’ rankings reward wealth and prestige — long a matter of debate, with little variation among the top schools from year to year — new ranking schemes seek to define which schools offer the best outcomes for students, the best value, the best student experience. The proliferation of rankings could shake up higher education, influencing not just how consumers view the market but also how colleges position themselves in the competition for students and faculty.
The latest entrant is from the Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education of London, which this fall proclaimed Stanford University the No. 1 school in the U.S. The new twist in this list is its use of results from an online survey of students that attempts to measure engagement with professors and satisfaction with the school. It also considers alumni salaries, graduation rates and other factors. The effort’s leaders say they are offering an alternative to a U.S. News formula that they believe gives too much weight to reputation and selectivity.
“We just thought there was a very clear gap and an opportunity to do something better for the U.S. consumers,” said Phil Baty, editor of world university rankings for Times Higher Education.
Sometimes variations in formulas make little difference in the rankings they produce. Eight of the top 10 universities on the U.S. News list were also in the Journal/THE top 10. The other two were right behind.
Johns Hopkins University placed 10th in the U.S. News rankings and was 11th in the Journal/THE list. The University of Chicago was third in U.S. News and 13th under the new ranking. The top 10 in both lists are extraordinarily wealthy, private and exclusive, enrolling fewer than 75,000 undergraduates in all. No matter what the metrics, money matters.
Many university leaders denounce rankings as misleading but acknowledge their influence.
“We all know that students read this, parents of students read this, and so it has a kind of public significance,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, interim president of Cornell University in upstate New York. He said he didn’t much care that the Journal/THE list placed his school at No. 9, higher than its U.S. News rank of 15th.
“You can always feel good about that if you want to,” Rawlings said. “But I want to know, what does that really tell me about Cornell? And my answer is: Almost nothing.”
But Purdue University President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. said he is proud that his university ranked 37th on the new list (compared to 60th in U.S. News), and fourth among public universities, tied with the University of California at Berkeley. Purdue plans to trumpet the news on billboards in Indiana. Daniels said he applauds rankings that focus on outcomes for students.
“People are making an effort to measure what really matters, better than before,” he said. “Even so, it’s quite right to say you have to look cautiously and critically at these.”
There are other lists. Forbes, Money and Kiplinger rank schools with an emphasis on value and outcomes. Washington Monthly ranks them on how much good they do for the public. Niche ranks on a variety of factors, including online feedback from students. Times Higher Education has a separate global ranking that focuses on reputation and research.
The Washington Post averaged the ordinal rankings from several lists to create a composite ranking, finding that, generally, the rankings tend to reward the usual suspects: Stanford and Harvard were first and second; UC-Berkeley topped public universities, with UCLA and the University of Michigan tied for second. Amherst and Pomona ranked first and second, respectively, among liberal arts colleges.
U.S. News, which started ranking colleges in 1983, remains a leading power in the field. It sorts schools based on selectivity, faculty resources, graduation rates and surveys of college leaders and high school counselors, among other factors. Robert Morse, the chief data strategist for U.S. News, said the Internet has made it easier to publish rankings, especially those that rely on public data.
“We definitely welcome new ranking organizations,” Morse said. “We believe the more information students have, the better.”
The Obama administration has spurred the evolution of rankings. Several lists use data the U.S. Education Department unveiled in 2015 on its College Scorecard website. The new figures show student loan repayment rates for each college and the average salaries of former students who received federal financial aid, 10 years after they started school. Analysts for Forbes, among others, use the salary data. U.S. News does not.
“Kids are bottom-line oriented, rightly or wrongly,” said Richard Vedder, an economist who started ranking schools for Forbes in 2008. “They’re interested in having a ticket to middle-class life after college, given the cost of college.”
In most rankings, major public universities tend to suffer in comparison with private schools. Educators say that’s unfair because the mission of the public university, which can have 10 or 20 times the enrollment of a private college, is completely different. So are the finances.
“We have gotten to the point where we’re comparing too many apples and oranges, and it’s counterproductive,” said Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow. He heads a school with more than 70,000 undergraduates on campuses around the Phoenix area. ASU in Tempe ranks 131st (Journal/THE) and 129th (U.S. News). But U.S. News also calls it the most innovative school in the country — a designation Crow is happy to promote.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, whose school ranks 26th (Journal/THE) and 24th (U.S. News), said rankings often fail to capture the combination of qualities that make a university great, or a great fit for individual students — diversity, access, excellence in research and teaching. But he’s resigned to that.
“The way I look at it, as a university leader, you can’t ignore rankings because prospective students don’t ignore them,” Block said. “We have to pay some attention to them — not that we can do much about it.”
Here is the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education’s Top 25 ranking:
4. University of Pennsylvania
11. (tie) Johns Hopkins
11. (tie)Washington University in St. Louis
13. (tie) University of Chicago
13. (tie) Northwestern
15. University of Southern California
19. Carnegie Mellon
24. University of Michigan
25. University of Notre Dame