Poor Ratings for 'U.S. News' Rankings

November 23, 2010

In something of a turnabout, admissions professionals recently had the chance to rank U.S. News & World Report for its college rankings -- and let's just say that the magazine was judged at about the equivalent of the dreaded "third tier" in its evaluations.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling conducted the survey, part of a series of research efforts related to the rankings and leading to a full report next year. The survey was conducted both of high school counselors and of college admissions officials -- and both groups expressed low regard for the U.S. News rankings, while acknowledging their impact, which may even be growing.

Some of the findings:

  • Asked to evaluate the U.S. News rankings on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 as "strenuous objection," 50 as complete neutrality and 100 as "strong support," the average score given by college admissions officers was 38.5 while the average score of high school counselors was 28.7.
  • Asked whether the title the magazine uses for the rankings, "America's Best Colleges," is accurate, only 2.4 percent of high school counselors and 3.3 percent of college admissions counselors said they agreed. Majorities (51.3 percent for college admissions officers and 61.9 percent for high school counselors) said that it was not accurate at all, with the remainder seeing it as somewhat accurate.
  • In several questions, the respondents suggest that the rankings do damage of various kinds. Solid majorities of respondents (68.4 percent of high school counselors and 54.2 percent of college admissions officials) agreed that the rankings offer "misleading" information to the public. Very similar majorities agreed that the rankings encourage "counter-productive behavior" by colleges. And large majorities (more than 80 percent for each group) agree or somewhat agree that the rankings end up creating "greater confusion" for students and families.

However much those surveyed don't see the rankings as reliable, they do see them having influence -- and many see that influence increasing.

Perceived Change in Prominence of U.S. News Rankings Over Last 5 Years

College admissions officers High school counselors
Much more 18.9% 23.5%
Somewhat more 36.2% 34.3%
Same 32.4% 33.2%
Somewhat less 11.8% 8.0%
Much less 0.7% 1.1%

In addition, solid majorities of those interviewed at colleges and high schools saw the rankings -- however doubtful in validity -- as being helpful in college recruiting efforts.

View that the U.S. News Rankings Help Colleges in Recruiting

College admissions officers High school counselors
Agree 15.2% 29.9%
Somewhat agree 40.4% 42.9%
Somewhat disagree 23.0% 14.1%
Disagree 21.4% 13.1%

The survey was done by a special NACAC panel examining the rankings, and brief remarks about the findings released with the survey data note that these findings will not surprise those who talk with high school counselors and college admissions officers. (While U.S. News officials are meeting with the committee on a range of issues, they played no role in planning the survey.)

On his blog, Robert Morse, who oversees the college rankings, praised the study, writing: "U.S. News is very glad that NACAC conducted and published the survey. The results offer unique insights into NACAC members' complex views toward our rankings. U.S. News believes having ongoing open and frank conversations with NACAC is very important, and we look forward to discussing the report."

Asked whether he was concerned about the negative feedback, Morse said via e-mail that he was not surprised. He noted that many guidance counselors, especially those at private high schools, have long held "negative views" about the magazine's rankings. He said that, in some ways, the surprise was that the response wasn't more negative -- and he noted that the college admissions officers seemed to see more value in the rankings than did their high school counterparts. He also said he was not surprised by the findings that both high school counselors and college officials see the influence of the rankings growing.

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