U.S. News' College Rankings Are Nonsense, Here's Why


As the calendar turns to fall, prospective college students and alumni alike look for the college rankings to be released. It serves as a point of pride to see where your alma mater ranks and to boast about how good of a school you will be attending. However, the ever-changing formula to decide the rankings makes the list more like a glorified popularity contest than a true ranking of educational or career value. In fact, the rankings do more harm than good by driving up the costs of secondary education, making need-based aid harder to obtain, and ignoring the true reason for college — jobs.

The 2014 rankings look like such: 

Top of the list

1. Princeton

2. Harvard

3. Yale

4. Columbia

5. Stanford/University of Chicago (tie)

Liberal Arts Colleges

1. Williams

2. Amherst

3. Swarthmore

4. Bowdoin/Middlebury/Pomona (three-way tie)

Because of the pageantry that is involved with lists of these types, schools place high importance on climbing higher on the list. One way to do this is to cater towards wealthier students who tend to have higher test scores, as that can boost the rankings of the college. One way to accomplish this is to push money away from need-based aid to merit based aid. A report by the New America Foundation takes a look at how these rankings are making college more expensive for low- and middle-income students.

The perfect example of this in the report is Pennsylvania State University–University Park (Penn State). Penn State is ranked #37 in the U.S. News Rankings, and spends $14 million a year on institutional aid yet its lowest-income in-state students pay an average net price of $17,000 a year, which is the fifth highest of any public institution. Also, according to a CBS News report, brownie points are awarded for spending money on making the campus beautiful but ignore whether or not schools charge too much or whether or not students are pushed into greater debt than necessary. So in the case of Penn State, the university is being rewarded for pushing its lowest-income in-state students into more debt.

What may be the biggest flaw in the rankings system is that the two biggest reasons for going to college are ignored. CBS News also points out how the rankings focus on the selectiveness of the schools and little attention is paid to what happens after the students arrive on campus. There is no effort made to determine what the educational experience is like once classes begin. The rankings also ignore job placement, which is the main reason students attend college. If students want to know how good a school is at job placement, shouldn’t the rankings say so? You would think so, but they don’t factor it in because they don't even ask.

And just because a college has the best academic rankings doesn't mean its graduates earn the most income, as this chart demonstrates. 

The pageantry that is the U.S. News college rankings is full of questionable algorithms that don’t really tell us anything. A good read on the flawed system was written by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker, and really breaks down how the system allows traditional schools with great reputations to sit atop the list. The fact is that by reducing the amount of need-based aid, increasing the need for loans, and ignoring the learning experience and job rankings, the rankings do more harm than good for college experience and either need to be reworked to incorporate the full experience, or simply go away.