If you’ve been through a college application cycle, then you’ve surely heard of the U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings report, which prides itself on having “expert advice, rankings and data to help you navigate your education journey and find the best college for you.” But how accurate is this ranking? How heavily should we rely on its advice? The U.S. News ranking uses 17 “measures of academic quality” such as class size, faculty salary and graduation rate, which are then weighted on a 100-point scale. These factors do impact a student’s college experience. However, the report's focus misses critical aspects of what makes a school a good fit for its students, such as successful job placement in a field relevant to a student’s major, student happiness and a feeling of belonging on campus.
Although the U.S. News ranking has taken prominence in college decision making, proponents should acknowledge its authors use both a limited quantitative ranking and a subjective element. Factors such as class size, high school class standing, graduation rates and faculty salaries are boiled down to numerical values. However, despite the report's mission to provide a resource for students to choose where they want to invest their next four years (and money), the focus on these rankings has created a toxic, misleading culture of superiority, where universities jockey for a coveted, highly ranked position. Last year, Columbia University was exposed for using “outdated and/or incorrect methodologies” to secure its No. 2 spot; they were downgraded to No. 18 after the scandal. Does this manipulation reflect qualities we want to see in our best universities? Or the values for which we want our system of higher education to strive?
In the wake of this scandal, some universities have had a change of heart. Harvard and Yale law schools pulled out of the U.S. News ranking, saying that its methodology does not reflect their values. Sixteen law schools, including Stanford University, University of Michigan and Duke University; 12 medical schools, including Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania and University of Chicago; and three undergraduate institutions have pulled out of the U.S. News report since November 2022.
We are experiencing a cultural shift as higher education institutions respond to the controversy over these rankings. These institutions need to realize why their happiest and most successful students choose not just to enroll, but also to stay. Arguably, factors beyond those prized by the U.S. News make a university the “best.”
For example, Princeton University is listed as the nation’s top university for the 2022–23 academic year. Yet Princeton is experiencing a student mental health crisis, reporting an all-time high of appointments made at their counseling services office. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University make up the U.S. News report’s No. 2 and 3 best universities, respectively. Yet both make the list for universities with the highest suicide rates. In contrast, according to a survey done by The Princeton Review asking the question “Am I happy at my school?” Tulane University ranks first, followed by Vanderbilt University and Auburn University. According to the U.S. News ranking, Tulane is No. 44, Vanderbilt No. 13 and Auburn No. 97.
These contrasts are important because the students and counselors working with college admissions and higher education have become so obsessed with a top ranking that both university administrators and prospective students severely undervalue factors outside the U.S. News report calculation.
I applied to six universities; none of them were in the U.S. News' top 10. I fell in love with Tufts not because of its ranking (No. 32 if you’re curious), but because of our campus, our community and opportunities to get involved in activities and intellectual endeavors. I love that Tufts feels small enough to see familiar faces, but big enough to offer opportunities to try new things. I love our campus traditions, like sledding down a snowy Prez Lawn and painting the cannon. I love encountering new ideas compelling enough to make me change my major. And I loved discovering the Tufts ballroom team, the music community and the Daily. Administrators should highlight and support the unique opportunities they offer at their institutions and rankings should only be one of many factors for potential students to consider — it’s really about what makes a school No. 1 for you.