US News and World Report has released its annual ranking of American college and university undergraduate programs. As usual, no big surprises. Of course, it’s always important to tell people to take these rankings with a grain of salt. The ranking criteria are set by US News, so we can be sure that things will be set to maximize sales and also to confirm what people already think so that the rankings look legitimate. The ranking quite clearly underrates public flagship universities compared to private schools and also doesn’t cover many of the most important aspects of academic life (course offerings, research opportunities, curriculum requirements, width and breadth of major offerings, etc).
Regardless, these kinds of rankings help feed a college admissions frenzy in which prospective students get into vitriolic arguments about whether or not, for example, Cornell is sufficiently prestigious compared to Brown. An exact ranking is rather pointless since at that point the rank can be easily manipulated by tweaking the methodology. Furthermore, this largely doesn’t matter anyway. I know plenty of people who went to schools that the rankings suggest are mediocre that were admitted and excelled at elite graduate programs. Some of those supposedly mediocre schools even host elite graduate programs in many subjects.
The annual college rankings frenzy is back again now that US News has released its latest rankings. I won’t report the numbers since you can easily find the rankings on your own.
These rankings are a great way for magazines to make money, but they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Most rankings suffer from the “garbage in garbage out” problem, where the editors seem to have an idea of how the final ranking should look and then design the ranking methodology to confirm their suspicions. It’s not surprising that elite universities show up at the top of the US News ranking. If they didn’t the ranking would probably be changed until they did. Other rankings try to get in the news by choosing ranking criteria to obtain an intentionally provocative result.
Exact numerical rankings are also rather pointless. Different schools will be good for different people. Harvard is better than MIT for humanities and social sciences but MIT is better than Harvard for engineering. Columbia and Chicago have large core requirements whereas Brown has very few requirements at all and most schools just have nebulous distribution requirements. It’s not even clear why Caltech should be on the same ranking as all these schools or why Harvey Mudd and the military academies get lumped in with the likes of Amherst and Swarthmore. Even outside academics, things like location, extracurriculars, research opportunities, and type of school (small college or large university) are important to consider before choosing a college. The rankings don’t take these into account (nor should they when these are mostly a matter of personal preference). The insistence on getting such a fine-grained ranking means that organizations like US News are inventing distinctions that aren’t warranted from their data. Schools don’t just choose the applicants with the best GPAs and SAT scores. At the elite level there aren’t enough meaningful academic distinctions between applicants to bother doing that. 10 or even 50 or 100 points on the SAT may only tell you that one student was luckier or maybe spent more money on expensive test prep classes. US News also chronically underrates top-tier public schools compared to private schools since the two classes of schools typically have different goals in their admissions processes and academic environments at the undergraduate level.
The rankings are useful for compiling a lot of data for prospective students to review. They also give a general idea of where different schools stand, both in terms of admissions and some limited academic factors (class sizes, graduation rates, etc) but people shouldn’t put too much stock in whether a school is #1 or #10 or #20. Rankings can’t replace independent research by prospective students, who may find that a much lower ranked school is actually much better (academically or socially) for them than the schools they would choose purely off the rankings. The highly decentralized and nonstandardized nature of higher education in the US makes even the idea of doing a ranking look rather foolish. I would prefer something more like the Carnegie classification system, which tries to organize colleges and universities by general criteria like amount of research, breadth of academic offerings, size of students body, etc. but does not rank them.