What is Next for College Rankings?

It’s safe to say that leaders in higher education typically have a love/hate relationship with college rankings. Traditionally, they love them when they do well and hate them when they move down a few pegs. Yet, outside of a small number of liberal arts colleges, few institutions have made the choice not to cooperate with the 800-pound gorilla in the college rankings industry–U.S. News and World Report. This is because research has shown that the profile of new students changes following a decline in the rankings and because many people care quite a bit about prestige.

This has made the recent decision by Yale Law and followed by ten law schools (and likely more by the time you read this) to stop cooperating with the U.S. News ranking of those programs fascinating. In this post, I offer some thoughts on what is next for college rankings based on my experiences as a researcher and as the longtime data editor for Washington Monthly’s rankings.

Prestige still matters. There are two groups of institutions that feel comfortable ignoring U.S. News’s implied threat to drop colleges lower in the rankings if they do not voluntarily provide data. The first group is broad-access institutions with a mission to serve all comers within their area, as these students tend not to look at rankings and U.S. News relegates them to the bottom of the list anyway. Why bother sending them data if your ranking won’t change?

The second group is institutions that already think they are the most prestigious, and thus have no need for rankings to validate their opinions. This is what is happening in the law school arena right now. Most of the top 15 institutions have announced that they will no longer provide data, and to some extent this group is a club of its own. Will this undermine the U.S. News law school rankings if none of the boycotting programs are where people expect them to be? That will be fascinating to watch.

What about the middle of the pack? The group of institutions that has been most sensitive to college rankings has been the group of not-quite elite but still selective institutions that are trying to enhance their profiles and jump over some of their competitors. Moving up in the rankings is often a part of their strategic plans, can increase presidential salaries at public universities, and U.S. News metrics have played a large part in how Florida has funded its public universities. Institutional leaders will be under intense pressure to keep cooperating with U.S. News so they can keep moving up.

Another item to keep an eye on: I would not be surprised if conservative state legislators loudly object to any moves away from rankings among public universities. In an era of growing political polarization and concerns about so-called “woke” higher education, this could serve as yet another flashpoint. Expect the boycotts to be at the most elite private institutions and at blue-state public research universities.

Will the main undergraduate rankings be affected? Graduate program rankings depend heavily on data provided by institutions because there are often no other available data sources. Law schools are a little different than many other programs because the accrediting agency (the American Bar Association) collects quite a bit of useful data. For programs such as education, U.S. News is forced to rely on data provided by institutions along with its reputational survey.

At the undergraduate level, U.S. News relies on two main data sources that are potentially at risk from boycotts. The first is the Common Data Set, which is a data collection partnership among U.S. News, Peterson’s, and the College Board. The rankings scandal at Columbia earlier this year came out of data anomalies that a professor identified based on their Common Data Set submissions, and Columbia just started releasing their submission to the public for the first time this fall. Opting out of the Common Data Set affects the powerful College Board, so institutions may not want to do that. The second is the long-lamented reputational survey, which has a history of being gamed by institutional leaders and has suffered from falling response rates. At some point, U.S. News may need to reconsider its methodology if more leaders decline to respond.

From where I sit as the Washington Monthly data editor, it’s nice to not rely on any data that institutions submit. (We don’t have the staff to do large data collections, anyway.) But I think the Common Data Set will survive, although there may need to be some additional checks put into the data collection process to make sure numbers are reasonable. The reputational survey, however, is slowly fading away. It would be great to see a measure of student success replace it, and I would suggest something like the Gallup Alumni Survey. That would be a tremendous addition to the U.S. News rankings and may even shake up the results.

Will colleges or programs ask not to be ranked? So far, the law school announcements that I have seen have mentioned that programs will not be providing data to U.S. News. But they could go one step farther and ask to be completely excluded from the rankings. From an institutional perspective, if most of the top-15 law schools opt out, is it better for them to be ranked in the 30s (or something like that) or just to not appear at all on paper? This would create an ethical question to ponder. Rankings exist in part to provide useful information to students and their families, but should a college that doesn’t want to be ranked still show up based on whatever data sources are available? I don’t have a great answer to that one.

Buckle up, folks. The rankings fun is likely to continue over the next year.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

2 thoughts on “What is Next for College Rankings?”

  1. My university is now highly ranked nationally in a thing we literally do not offer. No program. No “squint and you can see the outlines of it” program-ish, no adjacent program. 100% emperor’s new ranking. It’s a tremendous piece of ranking gamesmanship. The closest thing we have is a program whose steering committee I quit when it became clear that program admin would neither fight the ranking nor attempt to turn the program into something that does what it says on the tin. It’s a perfectly nice little program, and its director’s done well in carving out and defending a space for it while building it up, but it’s neither highly-rankable nor capable of offering what’s advertised.

    I’d like to see some class-action suits, frankly. If students and parents are relying on these things at all when they’re deciding where to spend their 4-6 years and enormous sums of money — and why wouldn’t they, what choice have most of them got — I think we should have oversight, independent reports, and timely lawsuits. No different from Moody’s.

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