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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 26, 2024

College rankings aren’t just a number — they’re worse

College rankings are making the college application process more stressful and competitive than it needs to be, but there are ways that U.S. News could reform them.


The U.S. News and World Report editorial offices are pictured in Washington, D.C.

When U.S. News first began publishing its Best Colleges list in 1983, the number of young Americans enrolling in college was in the midst of an upgrowth, adding almost 10 million students before its 2010 peak. With these new prospective students looking for guidance on where to apply for college, the U.S. News rankings became a very influential way to determine where their tuition would best be spent. In fact, colleges see a 6% to 10% increase in applications whenever they crack the top 25, creating great incentives to place on that list.

This practice has led universities and colleges such as Emory, George Washington, Iona and Claremont McKenna to lie about their statistics as the admissions process grows ever more competitive. Northeastern University capped some of their classes at 19 students to help improve their ranking, according to former University President Richard Freeland. Considering that graduate schools and future employers could use college rankings to evaluate applicants, wealthier families can go as far as to pay millions of dollars to get admitted to a highly ranked school through the back door.

High school students are especially feeling the mounting pressure, to the detriment of their mental health. A 2022 Princeton Review survey found that 76% of high school students reported high levels of stress about their college applications, a 19% increase from the first survey administered in 2003. The main beneficiary of college rankings seems to be U.S. News themselves, who receive 40 million website visitors a month and generate 15% of their revenue from selling “best of” badges for colleges to proudly display.

In addition to the negative effects of college rankings, there is very little objectivity to the way U.S. News creates its list. Firstly, 20% of the final score is determined by a survey known as the “Peer Assessment.” This is emailed to the president, provost and admissions deans of every university and asks them to rate other colleges on a scale from 1–5. Therefore, the entire metric is based on a survey of less than 1,500 people, many of whom never attended the schools they are assessing. U.S. News claims that this is a helpful way to measure nationwide prestige, but there is likely some personal bias involved when top university officials answer this survey. For example, they may be likely to think higher of schools that they are more familiar with. Rowan University President Ali Houshmand has even tried to gain awareness by mailing bottles of his signature hot sauce to other educational leaders. Less established universities may also be left out of the loop since perceived prestige can stem from how highly they were ranked in previous years. Lastly, there is no factor in U.S. News’ equation that measures student happiness, an important thing to consider since over 60% of college students struggle with their mental health.

In response to criticism, U.S. News adjusted its metrics this year to focus more on how universities improve the outcomes of low-income students while removing factors such as alumni giving and high school class standing, which incentivized colleges to admit wealthier students. While this is a step in the right direction, the inherent practice of assigning a singular number to rate colleges needs to change.

Every student is looking for something different in their college education. U.S. News should instead create a system akin to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard where colleges can be compared on individual dimensions such as cost, diversity and graduate earnings. Students should be able to find colleges that would best be able to fulfill their individual goals without feeling pressured to apply to a school solely because of the number attached to it. The college admissions process should be an exciting and meaningful time for high schoolers to reflect on the next chapter of their lives, not the cutthroat struggle that rankings have made it out to be.