- U.S. News & World Report is out with its annual "best colleges" college rankings — a few weeks after several institutions admitted to submitting incorrect information to last year's list. Such misreporting, along with the sheer number of such lists and a push by some institutions to shift prospective students' focus away from selectivity metrics, is challenging the popular rankings' relevance.
- Acknowledging that, U.S. News adapted its 2019 ranking to reduce the importance of expert opinions and test scores while adding social mobility indicators such as enrollment and graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients. It also left out acceptance rates, in an effort to focus on outcomes, which it weighted more heavily this year.
- The most significant moves came from public colleges reporting high graduation rates among low-income students — most notably the University of California, Los Angeles, which cracked the top 20 to best Georgetown University (No. 22) and was followed by UC Berkeley (also No. 22) and the University of Virginia (No. 25).
Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, MIT, University of Chicago. For all the methodology changes, the usual suspects took their usual places at the top of this year's U.S. News list. And while the higher education community continues to scrutinize the merits of this and other college rankings, research shows prospective students and their parents continue to rely on them.
Each year the higher ed industry asks itself: Are the institutions on these lists really the best colleges in the country?
Rankings like U.S. News' are based on the premise that college students all want the same thing. That's a myth higher education is beginning to acknowledge and even embrace as colleges turn to groups such as adult learners and dual-enrollment students to bolster their numbers. After all, the best college for a precocious 18 year old with her sights set on law school likely is not the best college for a 30-year-old parent seeking a technical degree in order to change careers.
Older students, for example, have different financial and learning needs than younger students, and they trend toward different institutions. According to U.S. News, schools with the highest share of students age 25 and older (Ferrum College, Charter Oak State College and Golden Gate University) were not the same as those that topped the general list (Princeton, Harvard, Columbia). And these students' numbers aren't insignificant. The National Center for Education Statistics projected that 7.6 million college and university students will be 25 years or older this fall, compared with 12.3 million under 25.
Critics of self-reported college rankings like U.S. News' say the onus is on colleges and universities to give up the long-disputed-yet-much-coveted marketing statistics and speak to prospective students about what the institution can offer them as an individual. U.S. News' move to drop acceptance rates from its "best colleges" calculation is a step in that direction. In August, Stanford said it would stop touting its selectivity metrics during enrollment periods, though it will submit the data to the federal government where it can be culled for rankings.
Some institutions have stopped requiring standardized test scores and essays, tasking admissions counselors with evaluating applicants holistically. Yet many colleges that have broadened their admissions criteria or declined to fill out the survey still turn up on narrowly defined college rankings, and often in top spots.
As long as the federal government requires this data, such rankings are possible. Yet the changes to this year's U.S. News methodology indicate that higher educations' evolving priorities can be reflected in such lists. Tracking performance on other critical (if less quantifiable) information will require higher education to systematically address some of its most pervasive issues: Does the college guarantee housing? What is the rate of food insecurity on campus? Are financial aid counselors available as part of the admissions process? What percentage of admitted students choose to attend?
Creating demand for such information — as colleges have done for data on low-income students — will make it a more competitive factor in college admissions and give American higher education a new definition for what makes a college the "best": How it serves its students.