How to Game the College Rankings

Northeastern University executed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in higher education. Its recipe for success? A single-minded focus on just one list.
northeastern richard freeland

Former Northeastern president Richard Freeland, the mastermind behind the school’s meteoric rise. / Portrait by Scott M. Lacey

For those at Northeastern, breaking into the U.S. News top 100 was like landing a man on the moon, but Freeland was determined to try. Reverse-engineering the formulas took months; perfecting them took years. “We could say, ‘Well, if we could move our graduation rates by X, this is how it would affect our standing,’” Freeland says. “It was very mathematical and very conscious and every year we would sit around and say, ‘Okay, well here’s where we are, here’s where we think we might be able to do next year, where will that place us?’”

Figuring out how much Northeastern needed to adjust was one thing; actually doing it was another. Point by point, senior staff members tackled different criteria, always with an eye to U.S. News’s methodology. Freeland added faculty, for instance, to reduce class size. “We did play other kinds of games,” he says. “You get credit for the number of classes you have under 20 [students], so we lowered our caps on a lot of our classes to 19 just to make sure.” From 1996 to the 2003 edition (released in 2002), Northeastern rose 20 spots. (The title of each U.S. News “Best Colleges” edition actually refers to the upcoming year.)

Admissions stats also played a big role in the rankings formula. In 2003, ranked at 127, Northeastern began accepting the online Common Application, making it easier for students to apply. The more applications NU could drum up, the more students they could turn away, thus making the school appear more selective. A year later, NU ranked 120. Since studies showed that students who lived on campus were more likely to stay enrolled, the school oversaw the construction of dormitories like those in West Village—a $1 billion, seven-building complex—to improve retention and graduation rates. NU was lucky in this regard—not every urban school in the country had vast land, in the form of decrepit parking lots, on which to build a new, attractive campus.

There was one thing, however, that U.S. News weighted heavily that could not be fixed with numbers or formulas: the peer assessment. This would require some old-fashioned glad-handing. Freeland guessed that if there were 100 or so universities ahead of NU and if three people at each school were filling out the assessments, he and his team would have to influence some 300 people. “We figured, ‘That’s a manageable number, so we’re just gonna try to get to every one of them,’” Freeland says. “Every trip I took, every city I went to, every conference I went to, I made a point of making contact with any president who was in that national ranking.” Meanwhile, he put less effort into assessing other schools. “I did it based on what was in my head,” he says. “It would have been much more honest just to not fill it out.”

With unwavering dedication to the rankings, Freeland jockeyed his school up 42 spots to 120 over eight years. Though impressive, getting to the elusive top 100 remained Freeland’s ultimate goal, but he had “gamed” the system as far as he could on his own. To break into the top 100, he’d need more intel on the news magazine’s methodology. He would also need U.S. News’s complicity. “We were trying to move the needle,” Freeland says, “and we felt there were a couple of ways in which the formula was not fair to Northeastern.”

And so it was in 2004 when Freeland, a 63-year-old with bushy gray eyebrows and slightly unkempt hair, stepped out of a taxi near the waterfront in Washington, DC’s fashionable Georgetown neighborhood. With his head down, his lips tightly pursed, he marched into the red-brick offices of U.S. News, determined to make the rankings wizard, data guru Robert Morse, his accomplice.

 

Meanwhile, other schools that couldn’t successfully game the system were trying to cheat their way to the top.

In 2008, Baylor University told newly admitted students that they’d receive a $300 campus-bookstore credit if they retook their SATs, and $1,000 a year in student aid if the scores improved by more than 50 points. In 2009, an administrator at Clemson University, whose president shared Freeland’s rankings fixation, admitted the school misrepresented financial information and purposefully rated institutions low on the peer assessments.

In 2011, Iona College officials admitted to misreporting acceptance rates, SAT scores, graduation rates, and alumni donation amounts over the course of a decade. In 2012, Claremont McKenna College copped to misreporting SAT scores for several years. Also in 2012, George Washington University admitted to inflating the percentage of students who graduated at the top of their high school classes, and Emory University said it had misreported high school GPAs for four years and SAT scores for nearly a dozen years.

Despite those instances, Brian Kelly, of U.S. News, says that misreporting is rare. U.S. News crosschecks some data with government records and other published sources, but that won’t help if a school is lying about data across the board. When misreporting does occur, U.S. News says it might temporarily “un-rank” a school if the bad data affects its standing. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the schools are treating this seriously and reporting with integrity,” Kelly insists.

Cases of misreporting have only strengthened the anti-rankings movement, which has been around for decades. Lloyd Thacker, who worked in college admissions and founded the Education Conservancy, in Portland, Oregon, is one of U.S. News’s fiercest critics. He says research shows that the rankings distort the way students, parents, high schools, and colleges pursue and perceive education. “Have rankings contributed to anything beneficial in education?” he asks. “There’s no evidence. There’s lots of evidence to the contrary.”

Because schools reap benefits from a high spot on U.S. News’s list, he says, it makes sense for them to continue to throw money at the metrics. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, for instance, to lure students with high GPAs and SAT scores, private four-year schools increased spending on merit-based aid from $1.6 billion to $4.6 billion. Studies show that for every 10 merit-based scholarships, there are four fewer need-based scholarships. That’s because schools often base merit on test scores, and students from lower-income families generally don’t test as well, largely because they spend less on tutors and SAT prep. Tuitions rise to help universities keep pace, further reducing middle-class access to a top-flight education.

 

Freeland landed in Morse’s U.S. News office that day in 2004 to discuss, among other things, how the publication handled students enrolled in NU’s co-op program. Long the cornerstone of the university’s curriculum, the program let students take breaks from their studies in order to gain professional experience in their chosen fields for months at a time. NU maintained that this jobs program was critical to its graduates’ success—it was one of the school’s greatest strengths. Unfortunately, Morse counted co-op students in enrollment data, making it look like more students were using university resources than actually were. This brought down the U.S. News “financial resources” criterion, thereby hurting NU’s rank. From 2002 to 2003, that was the only metric in which NU actually did worse.

Though Morse initially wouldn’t go along with Freeland’s request to change the magazine’s methodology to address Northeastern’s co-op, Freeland emerged from the U.S. News office more confident than ever that NU could crack the top 100. Morse had agreed with Freeland’s overall reasoning and helped him better understand the criteria. It was just enough insight for Freeland to work with.

The following year, NU’s ranking advanced to 115. With its rankings that fall, U.S. News published a three-page article praising Northeastern’s co-op program. The publication wouldn’t reveal whether it changed its policy, but Northeastern no longer includes co-op students in its reporting. At that point, Freeland says, “We discovered that we could actually start to move pretty quickly. The more we discovered that, the more we focused on it.”

Not everyone, however, was onboard with the rankings push. “I think one of my tasks actually at Northeastern was to persuade the faculty that this was a good and reasonable vision,” says Ahmed Abdelal, provost at the time. But, he says, “I’m not going to claim that we converted every faculty member.” One former administrator describes NU’s former president as controlling and single-minded. “I think Freeland was much more focused on the ratings and not necessarily on what it took to improve the quality of the institution,” the former administrator says. “He was going to do whatever it took to increase the ratings.”

The day after Freeland retired in August 2006, he was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard when he heard the news: The U.S. News rankings were out, and Northeastern had broken through the top 100, all the way to number 98. In his decade as president, Freeland had lifted the school up more than 60 spots, prompting the Boston Business Journal to later call NU’s rise “one of the most dramatic since U.S. News began ranking schools.” Before Freeland left, the trustees had voted again on an amount for his retirement supplement, awarding him around $2 million to acknowledge his success. Years later, the state would name him commissioner of higher education.

Leery of being misunderstood, Freeland tells me, “It may have seemed a little foolish at the time or a little shallow at the time, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”