Rankling with U.S. News and World Report College Rankings

Harvard is tied for No. 1 on the annual U.S. News and World Report ranking.

U.S. News and World Report released their annual list of college and university rankings yesterday, and Boston-area schools are well represented yet again. Harvard and Princeton tied for first place in the university category, MIT came in fifth, while Tufts is 29th, Boston College and Brandeis are tied at 31st, Boston University is 53rd, and Northeastern is 62nd. And Williams and Amherst came in first and second in the liberal arts college rankings, which should surprise no one, since that’s exactly where they were last year.

In fact, there were few shifts at all in the top 20 university rankings this year. The only major change, perhaps, was that fewer schools are participating in the peer evaluation portion, a key element in the methodology. According to Inside Higher Ed, U.S. News saw the overall number of college presidents responding to their survey drop five percentage points this year, down to 43 percent. What’s more, the number of guidance counselors responding to the survey has dropped to a mere 13 percent of respondents, which is down eight points from last year.

How to account for the drop? The U.S. News rankings have faced criticism for years about their inability to truly measure the quality of a school, so respondents may have been less inclined to participate as a result. In my article in this month’s issue, author and former university president Richard Hersh expressed his own frustration with the U.S. News rankings, arguing that they’re little more than a facade:

For far too long, he tells me, we’ve smiled and nodded while colleges impressed us with data points that have little to do with how much students actually learn. We don’t take hospitals at their word that they’re giving us excellent care, he says; we expect them to prove it with statistics and well-articulated standards. But we don’t ask the same of universities. Instead, we focus on the trivial, like how big the library is, or the spending per student. “Go and look at the variables that U.S. News & World Report uses,” Hersh says of the bible of college rankings. “Not one of them predicts learning.”

Hersh believes that instead of focusing all of our attention on how colleges rank, we should instead push for schools to measure the amount of learning happening on campus. And Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, says he’s heartened by the drop in participation as he’s been discouraging students and university presidents from getting hung up on college rankings for the past several years.

Before starting the conservancy, Thacker worked as a high school guidance counselor and in college admissions offices, and says he became so frustrated by the commercialization of the college application process that he’s made it his mission to undermine the influence of the U.S. News standings. “Educational leadership has to help this country think its way out from under the rankings,” he says. “Students are hungry to learn more about the learning environments [at colleges]. We want to get more robust information that’s more authoritative.” Thacker says that his group has partnered with the College Board and Consumers Union (the group which publishes Consumer Reports) and together they’re planning to launch a new site, Big Future, at the end of this year that will better serve students.

Of course, if you could care less about the learning happening on campus or the quality of schools, there are far more superficial rankings available to you, too. Newsweek and the Daily Beast released their own set of college rankings late last month, measuring factors like hotness, horniness, party scenes, and schools with the least academic rigor. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) in all of those categories, Boston schools come up short.