Do College Rankings Really Matter?

In September, U.S. News & World Report, the leading authority in college rankings, announced the 2021 U.S. News Best Colleges list. For the 10th straight year, Princeton University has earned the #1 spot, followed by Harvard University and Columbia University. Likewise, on the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, Williams College has maintained its #1 position, with Amherst College and Swarthmore College coming in at #2 and #3, respectively. Now that prospective students are unable to attend traditional on-campus info sessions and campus tours, rankings carry extra weight as students turn to “expert data” to create their college lists.

HOW MUCH COLLEGE RANKINGS MATTER

This year more than ever, we have been asked how much college rankings really matter. And if, in the past, these rankings have been directly correlated with standardized test scores of accepted students, what are the new metrics that have been used to determine this year’s list as colleges go test-optional? How reliable are these methodologies?

In response to the pandemic’s ongoing disruptions and ripple effect on college admissions, this year’s US News rankings include three new topics: student debt, social mobility, and test-blind admissions policies. For the first time, they have also ranked schools that don’t use the SAT or ACT for the purpose of admissions.

U.S. News has published the updated breakdown of key data used to determine overall rank. The six factors are weighted as follows:

Outcomes (40%, previously 35%)

Its success at retaining and graduating students within 150% of normal time (six years). We approach outcomes from angles of graduation and retention (22%), graduation rate performance (8%), social mobility (5%) and, new this year, graduate indebtedness (5%).

Faculty Resources (20%)

U.S. News uses five factors from the 2019-2020 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction: class size (8%), faculty salary (7%), faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3%), student-faculty ratio (1%) and proportion of faculty who are full time (1%).

Expert Opinion (20%)

Each year, top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). We take a two-year weighted average of the ratings. The 2021 Best Colleges ranking factors in scores from both 2020 and 2019.

Financial resources (10%)

This is determined based on average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Student Excellence (7%, previously 10%)

The ACT/SAT scores and high school class rank of accepted students.

Alumni giving (3%, previously 5%)

The average percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their school during 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

While this updated breakdown has reduced the weight given to SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing, and alumni donations in response to the shifting admissions landscape, these factors still matter and are a significant part of the raw material that informs the final list. Furthermore, as noted on their website, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means that the “current” policies and procedures collected in spring 2020 may have changed since the rankings were determined.

CHANGES IN COLLEGE RANKINGS –BUT NOT ENOUGH

H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science, former provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has publicly called for the suspension of college rankings during this time of crisis. In his article, published in May, he makes his case clear:

“A truly transformative move in this moment of crisis would be to suspend testing requirements and college rankings. This is not a time for undergraduate institutions to be using precious resources to chase these numbers. Rather, they need to support struggling students and other members of the academic community so that education can resume this fall in a manner that is fair to all. Some schools are already making test scores optional for the time being, and hopefully that requirement will never return. Ranking colleges and universities changed higher education, mostly for the worse. Now is the time for institutions to suspend those rankings and, when the crisis is over, bring them back in a more progressive form.”

Other college rankings, such as the Washington Monthly’s 2020 rankings, have responded to this social pressure. Although they still published their rankings in August, they have made an effort to emphasize diversity and social consciousness in their calculations and approach. As they explain, “It’s our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige.” To calculate a college’s commitment to diversity, for example, they use IPEDS data “to measure the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants, and College Scorecard data to measure the percentage of first-generation students at each school.” For the first time, they have also listed the schools that make sure majors popular with Black students (social work, criminal justice, and sociology) lead to well-paying jobs. See that list here.

Money’s annual Best Colleges for Your Money ranking, published in August, used a methodology based on 27 factors in three categories: Quality of education (30% of weighting), Affordability (40% of weighting), and Outcomes (30% of weighting). In response to the economic outlook this year, they increased the emphasis on affordability. They also added two new net price figures to “capture affordability for students from middle-income backgrounds alongside our existing measure of net price for low-income students.”

Finally, this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education 2021 rankings consider similar metrics to assess colleges in four areas: Outcomes (salary graduates earn, debt burden they accrue), Resources (the spending schools put into instruction and student services), Engagement (student survey), and Environment (diversity of the community). It is critical to note, however, that, due to the pandemic and shutdown of college campuses, the student survey (20% of the ranking) was canceled for this year. As such, the WSJ/THE rankings use the scores obtained by institutions last year.

THE BOTTOM LINE

In many ways, these rankings will only continue to exasperate the inequities in higher education, made more acute by the ongoing pandemic. While the ranking organizations have made some efforts to add transparency to their process, the data is simply not consistent or dependable at this stage, and a considerable amount of data this year was re-used from the 2019 lists, which did not take into account new admissions procedures or the reality of campus life during COVID-19. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the rankings are largely the same as years past. While some of the metrics offered by these publications can be useful, they should be consulted with care and some degree of skepticism. For personalized guidance and a winning application strategy that takes into account the ever-shifting landscape in real time, contact us today about our Private Counseling Program or Application Boot Camp.

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