Columbia University skidded to No. 18, suggesting that the ratings may be flawed and easily manipulated. But for many families, the list is a marker of prestige.
Neil Daniel, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a top public high school in Alexandria, Va. He said he looked at college rankings but also independently analyzed the average SAT and ACT scores at schools he is interested in.Credit…Ting Shen for The New York Times
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College presidents have decried the U.S. News rankings as meaningless. Policymakers accused them of skewing educational priorities. And high school guidance counselors call them unreliable.
Yet the U.S. News & World Report college rankings continue to be a dominant reference guide for families evaluating colleges — even though their accuracy was again questioned when Columbia University lost its No. 2 spot this week, sliding all the way to No. 18.
Interviews with students, parents and education professionals suggest that the rankings are firmly established as a go-to part of the college selection process across the country. It is true for students vying for the Top 10, families looking for the best buy among regional schools and international students who want global name recognition.
“I haven’t met a parent who doesn’t think the rankings are important,” said Terry Mady-Grove, whose company, Charted University Consultants, advises clients from around the world. “It doesn’t matter who they are, what their educational backgrounds are, or where they live.”
In the most competitive high schools, the college rankings have reached the level of obsession.
“I think it’s more of a FOMO, fear of missing out,” said Neil Daniel, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a top public high school in Alexandria, Va. “Going to TJ, a lot of people, their parents and the communities around them, they’re expected to get into an Ivy League school. There’s a lot of pressure — Harvard, Stanford, Yale, M.I.T.”
Neil said he looked at rankings but also independently analyzed the average SAT and ACT scores at each school. He is interested in Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a techie school ranked No. 22, but he sees some local options as possibilities, including the University of Virginia (No. 25), as well as his father’s alma mater, Virginia Tech (No. 62).
“To be honest, the schools in our area — they’re really great,” he said. “Top 10 schools tend to be more expensive, but in terms of cost-effectiveness, you get a little more out of local schools.”
His mother, Divya Singh, said the rankings were not the most important thing to her.
“I do want it to be a good school, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “There are things that are more important to us than the name of the school he gets into or the ranking of that school.”
Many parents, though, approach the rankings as make-or-break deals, the key to lifelong success as well as bragging rights.
Marjorie Hass, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said that even with increased competition from other college rating publications, the U.S. News rankings remained a critical reference point for certain parents.
“These are often parents who are perhaps more status conscious and they really see those rankings as, in some ways, a status signifier,” said Dr. Hass, a longtime college administrator and former president of Rhodes College in Memphis.
Darren Rose, president of POM College Consulting, a college admissions adviser based in suburban Cleveland, says that parents regularly contact his company armed with a list of top-ranked schools and insist that their children are timber for admission.
His company tries to explain that other schools might be better fits, but he says that “numbers mean more to the family when they’re chatting with their friends or bragging on social media than they mean in the real world.”
(Mr. Rose’s daughter is a biochemistry major at Ohio State University, which boasted this week that it had moved up in the U.S. News rankings for public universities — and is now ranked 49th among national universities.)
“I’m not sure what purpose they serve other than to help the schools charge more money,” Mr. Rose said. “If your school is three, nine or 18, I don’t know how that matters.”
Rankings also matter for many students who plan to remain in-state.
Lana Heaney, a junior at Michigan State University (No. 77) said she was embarrassed in high school because she knew she could not get into the University of Michigan (No. 25), which is often considered a “public Ivy.”
She applied to several other state schools but rejected them, she said, because they were ranked below Michigan State. “When people are thinking about what they want to do in their lives, they obviously want to make a good amount of money,” she said. “When you go to a better school, people assume you will get a better job.”
In 2020, Michelle Landrito Sison used the U.S. News rankings to help find the right college for her son, Toby Sison, then a high school student in Westbury, N.Y.
The rankings, she said, were “more important to us than to him.”
Still, they had their limits. Even though Toby was accepted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (No. 41), the offer came with no financial assistance. He elected to go to Stony Brook University for its relatively high ranking and affordability, Ms. Sison said.
“You bet I was happy to hear it was ranked higher this year,” Ms. Sison wrote in a message on Monday. Stony Brook moved up 16 places, to No. 77.
For international students, the rankings can make a difference in their job prospects. Ms. Mady-Grove said that these students — especially those from China and India — focus on the U.S. News list because employers in their home countries are more apt to hire graduates from well-known universities.
One of her clients from Belgium who attended Middlebury College, a prestigious college in Vermont currently ranked 11th among liberal arts colleges, found that he initially had trouble back home because employers were not familiar with the school.
F. King Alexander, senior faculty fellow at the University of Alabama Education Policy Center, said that the rankings became influential because of a dearth of reliable information on college quality, yet that they are based on flawed methods that reward colleges that charge high prices with low acceptance rates.
“There’s been such a lack of information to make good decisions,” said Dr. Alexander, who formerly led several large public universities, most recently Oregon State.
Even so, Dr. Alexander said, the rankings have taken on mythic proportions at some universities, so much so that when he served as chancellor at Louisiana State University, the ranking was part of his performance review.
Walter Kimbrough, interim director of the Black Men’s Research Institute at Morehouse College said the rankings reward wealthy and white institutions.
“It’s a perpetuation of privilege,” Dr. Kimbrough said. “It shouldn’t be called best colleges — call it America’s most privileged colleges.”
U.S. News did not immediately respond to requests for an interview. But it has often made the case that college is the biggest investment that families will make, and that the rankings help high school students and their families make the most well-informed decisions about college and ensure that the institutions themselves are held accountable.
Ratings, however, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to John Byrne, publisher and editor of Poets & Quants, which provides information on business schools and publishes its own evaluation system for business schools.
“They affect applications,” he said. “They affect the ability of the schools to raise money from donors, and they even affect the ability of the school to attract faculty.”
He points to a survey of more than 350 admissions consultants at business schools that found that 63 percent of applicants thought a school’s ranking was the most important factor in choosing a school.
Mr. Byrne’s publication first raised questions about U.S. News’s No. 1 ranking for Temple University’s online M.B.A. program, leading to disclosures that the school had submitted false data. The former dean of the business school, Moshe Porat, was convicted on wire fraud charges last year.
Of the myriad college rankings, those from U.S. News have become the most controversial, the result of its influence, the Temple case and now Columbia’s expulsion from the Top 10.
Columbia acknowledged that some of its self-reported data had been inaccurate, but the dramatic decline also helped cast further doubt on the reliability of the U.S. News enterprise. (U.S. News also ranks cars, mutual funds and hospitals.)
Still, the new No. 18 ranking could have a material effect on Columbia.
Ms. Mady-Grove said she was scheduled to talk this week with a family whose child had planned to apply early decision to the university.
“I have a feeling they are going to say they want the child to go to a different school now,” she said. “Columbia hasn’t changed. The ranking has changed.”