Tweaking the Methodology

U.S. News adjusts the most controversial part of its rankings -- but does it matter?
August 17, 2010

U.S. News & World Report will release its annual college rankings today -- and there are no real surprises at the top, where the same colleges and universities that have occupied the upper spots will go right on doing so. But the magazine has tweaked its methodology -- slightly lessening the emphasis on and broadening the inputs for the much-criticized “reputational” calculation.

That portion of the methodology now counts for 22.5 percent of institutional scores for “national” colleges and universities, down from 25 percent. (There isn’t a change for the rest of colleges.) Further, the ratings of college presidents (or whomever they ask to fill out the form) will count for only 15 percent. The other 7.5 percent of the reputational total will come from a national survey of high school guidance counselors (selected because they are at high schools that U.S. News considers to be the best public high schools in the country).

The magazine is giving the extra 2.5 percentage points to another category -- graduation rate performance -- that judges colleges on whether they exceed the graduation rates that might be expected of their students. This portion of the methodology -- now worth 7.5 percent of the total -- is less controversial than some other parts of the formula because it focuses on what colleges do with the students they enroll. Many educators say that other parts of the formula reward colleges for having a lot of money and/or serving the best-prepared students.

While many educators question the value of rankings altogether, the reputational portion of U.S. News (still the most significant factor in the methodology, even after the change) has been subject to criticism even from those who like rankings.

For years, critics have noted that such rankings tend to reward institutions that used to be strong (even if they aren’t as strong now) and that many presidents end up ranking institutions about which they know relatively little. Many colleges spend large sums of money sending materials to other presidents to try to influence them, and last year, Inside Higher Ed documented that some presidents appear to give unreasonably low rankings to their competitors and in some cases to all colleges but their own.

For several years, some critics have tried to encourage colleges to skip the reputational surveys as a way of drawing attention to their questionable value. This year, 48 percent of all colleges submitted the forms, the same percentage as last year. Among liberal arts colleges, 47 percent of institutions completed the survey, up one percentage point from last year. The figures have been relatively stable for the last two years – suggesting an apparent end to an earlier decline. The rate was as high as 67 percent before criticism stepped up.

While the rate among college presidents has stabilized, the rate among guidance counselors is quite low: only 21 percent. Robert Morse, who leads the rankings project at U.S. News, said that the guidance counselors were added because they have said for years that "they have something to add" to the rankings. Asked whether 21 percent was too low to be valid, especially when many counselors would most likely rank only some colleges and universities, he said that wasn't the case and that all colleges were ranked by enough counselors for the survey to be valid.

While the magazine stressed the goal of involving more sources of information in the reputational survey, Morse acknowledged that "some college presidents and others have been and continue to have strong feelings about the peer survey and the way U.S. News conducts it."

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy and a leading critic of rankings, said he wasn't impressed by the changes in the methodology. "What's the definition of alchemy?" he asked, after the changes were described to him.

He said that the fundamental problems with rankings remain, in that they give a false sense of some colleges being better than others and ignore the need to focus on student needs as opposed to prestige. "The rankings are not rooted in education," he said. "They are trying to sell magazines. Is this going to be any more educationally credible? I don't see that."


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