Method or Madness? Inside the USNWR College Rankings

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Ehrenberg, Ronald G
Education; Other Education
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[Excerpt] U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) shook up the college guide industry when it began publishing its annual rankings of colleges in 1983. The summary of its annual rankings of colleges as undergraduate institutions that appear in a fall issue each year is by far the best selling issue of USNWR each year and, together with its more comprehensive annual America’s Best Colleges publication, it has become the “gold standard” of the college ranking business. USNWR’s rapid rise to the top derives from its rankings’ appearance of scientific objectivity (institutions are rated along various dimensions with explicit weights being assigned to each dimension), along with the fact that USNWR then ranks the top 50 institutions in each category (for example national universities and liberal arts colleges). Each year immediately before and after the USNWR college rankings issue hits the newsstand, stories about the USNWR rankings appear in virtually every major newspaper in the United States. I begin my remarks by discussing why Americans have become so preoccupied with the USNWR rankings and why higher education institutions have become equally obsessed with them. Next I discuss how the rankings methodology allows colleges and universities to take actions to manipulate their rankings and the effects that such actions have on higher education. I then ask if the rankings are flawed, why do colleges and universities continue to participate in them and I discuss some of the major problems with the ratings. Finally, I offer some brief concluding thoughts about how USNWR could alter its rating formula in ways that I believe would be socially desirable.