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L. Song Richardson, president of Colorado College, announcing that her college was leaving the rankings.

Colorado College

A week ago, L. Song Richardson, the president of Colorado College, sent all her students, faculty members and alumni a message: the college was leaving the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

“We are pulling out of this ranking because it privileges criteria that are antithetical to our values and our aspirational goals,” she said. “Here are a few examples. U.S. News flawed methodology still equates academic quality with institutional wealth and continues to rely heavily on the infamous questionnaire asking institutions to rank each other’s reputation, a non-objective process subject to gaming. It continues to equate academic rigor with high school rank and standardized test scores, a metric that creates perverse incentives for schools to provide ‘merit’ aid at the expense of need-based aid.

“This metric is also inconsistent with our belief that the educational experiences we provide transform our students regardless of these class rank and test scores, which is why we went test-optional in 2019. Further, U.S. News & World Report’s methodology, weighing the proportion of students with debt and the total amount of debt at graduation, creates incentives for schools to admit wealthy students who can attend without incurring debt. We cannot reconcile our values and our aspirations with these metrics or the behaviors they motivate.”

Colorado College has been ranked from 25th to 29th for the past decade. Richardson added, “We expect that we will drop in the rankings based on our decision to leave the U.S. News & World Report rankings. If this occurs, it will not be because our educational quality has changed, but because U.S. News & World Report will continue to rank us using incomplete data.”

The college was the second undergraduate institution to withdraw in a month—the Rhode Island School of Design also withdrew from U.S. News in February.

RISD president Crystal Williams said, “Principally, Rhode Island School of Design does not measure the value of our students or our academic programs based on the same factors used by U.S. News & World Report. Our educational model is predicated on three primary ways of learning: visual, material and intellectual. The value of our unique form of education can be seen and felt in the daily impact our students, alums, faculty and staff have on the world. In a recent survey, more than 80 percent of our alums said they were proud of and happy with their RISD education. And 90 percent believe their RISD education has been essential to their professional success.”

Since November, a number of elite law and medical schools have left U.S. News. Yale University was the first law school to act, and Harvard University was the first medical school to act. Both moves were quickly followed by others (including highly ranked institutions).

To date, there has not been a similar following of Colorado College and RISD from the undergraduate rankings. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said last week that colleges should not worship at “the false altar” of U.S. News rankings and should drop out.

Many pundits have also endorsed the movement. But there have not been more colleges dropping out. Why is this?

David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he has not heard a lot of discussion of imminent departures from the rankings. “That is not surprising when you consider that the decision to withdraw from the rankings involves a lot of internal institutional conversations that could be compromised if they’re made public,” he said.

At the same time, he said the recent remarks by Cardona were encouraging. “The fact, though, that the secretary of education is openly challenging the same flaws that many in our profession have expressed concern about over the years offers an unprecedented opportunity to engage with critical stakeholders in institutional governance whose consent would allow institutions to stop spending so much time generating data for the commercial rankings and refocus their energy on the interests of their students and their institution.”

Why Are Colleges Staying Put for Now?

Talking to colleges directly about the issue is difficult. Colorado College and RISD kept their plans secret until they announced, so there could well be similar colleges planning moves now.

But talking to presidents of institutions that have not announced plans to change (off the record), several issues were mentioned:

  • The role of trustees. More than one president said they would leave the rankings now but for trustee opposition. Trustees value data on how a college is doing, the presidents said, and they like to boast about a college’s rank.
  • Fear of U.S. News. One president of a nonprestigious college said that Yale law school and Colorado College have more clout in than they do, and they fear offending U.S. News.
  • Good scores. In recent years, many colleges that are not at the top of the main lists have nonetheless found ways to boast about their scores, for instance saying that they are on the list of top colleges in a region, and they don’t want to stop.

Many college presidents believe that it would be hypocritical for colleges to stick with U.S. News for the long run, given the way they have criticized its operations over the years. But they expect the movement against the rankings at the undergraduate level to be slower than it has been for law schools and medical schools (for the reasons noted above).

Danielle Mancuso, a spokeswoman for RISD, checked in with her president’s office, admissions and community relations office.

“They have not received any direct feedback from other college or admissions leaders,” she said.

Mancuso said response has been “positive” among with RISD’s internal community, and on social media.

Richardson, of Colorado College, has been urging fellow presidents to drop U.S. News. “I would love for other colleges to join us.”

After the college’s announcement, she wrote to the presidents of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (of which Colorado is the westernmost member) and the Annapolis Group, a national group of liberal arts colleges, urging them to follow her move.

She received a number of responses, some “very supportive” and a few opposed to what she did.

“To a person, they acknowledged the problematic nature of the U.S. News ranking,” she said.

She said “about five” colleges are seriously considering a similar move, but she declined to name them.

More Than Prestige

James Murphy, deputy director for higher education policy at Education Reform Now, said via email that rankings can “shine a light on good actors and motivate bad ones to do better. It was good to see U.S. News introduce the percentage of undergrads with Pell Grants and the graduation rate of students with Pell Grants into the rankings, but those measures only count for 5 percent. They should count for at least 20 percent. That would motivate wealthy colleges to do more to enroll students from low-income households. My organization released a social mobility ranking a few years ago and we’re going to update it later this month. The colleges that tend to have transformative effects are public universities that are less selective. They are the institutions we should all know by name—the CUNY system, the Cal States, the University of Illinois at Chicago.”

He said the real problem with U.S. News rankings is “that their main function is to confer prestige rather than recognizing institutions that make significant contributions to society through scholarship and by advancing social mobility. The editors of the rankings like to defend them as serving transparency, and they are right that students and families need to know more about college admissions, affordability, and outcomes.”

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