U.S. News & World Report on Monday released the results of what it considers the most significant overhaul of its 40-year-old college ranking empire.
At the top, there was little change as Princeton remained the nation’s top university, followed by MIT, with Harvard and Stanford tied for third. Williams maintained its stature as the nation’s top liberal arts college, and Spelman College once again led among historically black institutions.
But more than a dozen public universities, most of them relatively low-key, climbed at least 50 places in the rankings. Fresno State moved up 64 spots, to No. 185, for example, and Florida Atlantic jumped 53, to No. 209. Many other public institutions saw smaller, though notable, gains, like Rutgers, which saw each of its three campuses increase by at least 15 places.
They benefited from an algorithm that brought down the rankings of some private universities, but which represented an effort to justify deals that higher education leaders regularly talk about, such as transforming the lives of economically disadvantaged students.
The reworked formula placed greater emphasis on graduation rates for students who received Pell Grants and need-based retention. It also introduced measures related to first-generation college students and whether recent graduates earned more than people who only completed high school.
The most seismic shifts involved schools that weren’t at the extremes of previous rankings, because they weren’t extraordinarily weak or strong across a wide range of criteria. Occupying the middle rungs of the rankings meant that changes in methodology, such as removing alumni donations as a criterion, could easily fuel dramatic rises and falls.
It was unclear, however, to what extent the overhaul would reduce criticism of U.S. News. Schools have said the rankings have considerable influence on students and parents, who use them as an indicator of prestige. And critics say they can distort colleges’ priorities and how they admit students.
L. Song Richardson, president of Colorado College, said the updated methodology was “slightly better.” The liberal arts school announced in February that it would stop submitting information to U.S. News.
“It doesn’t alleviate my concerns, which is why we haven’t re-enrolled,” said Ms. Richardson, whose institution fell two spots to 29th among liberal arts colleges. “But I’m certainly excited that they’re starting to listen to what higher education leaders are telling them.”
Although some public universities like Fresno State have benefited this year, many university leaders are loath to rank colleges as if education were a mass-consumer product. Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber complained in a 2021 Washington Post opinion piece that “the rankings game is a bit of a madness — a bit of a stupid obsession that does harm when universities, parents or students take it too seriously.”
Naming a university “the best,” he added, was “bizarre.”
But the universities that soared nonetheless welcomed their new rankings. Antonio D. Tillis, chancellor of the Rutgers campus in Camden, New Jersey, said officials are “excited” and that the increase “reflects an intentional dedication to access and affordability, success students, academic excellence and voter engagement.”
U.S. News relies on proprietary formulas for its high-profile, for-profit ratings business, which rates everything from mutual funds to pediatric gastroenterology services. The publisher’s college rankings are widely considered the most influential in America, and administrators, however philosophically hostile they may be toward rankings, often adopt them as marketing tools. For the most part, even universities whose law or medical schools have pledged in recent months to stop sharing information with U.S. News have provided data on their undergraduate programs.
Eric J. Gertler, executive chairman of U.S. News, categorically denied that the publisher had made adjustments to its formula to try to retain university support. US News had said it would rank schools based on whether they provided information.
The company ruled out five factors that often favored wealthy universities and that together accounted for 18 percent of a school’s score, including undergraduate class sizes, alumni giving rates and class rankings. of high school.
This year’s formula, which relied more on data sources other than school submissions, also placed less weight on overall graduation rates and financial resources per student, which look at how much, on average, a university spending per student on costs such as teaching and research.
Private universities have proven particularly vulnerable to the new formula. Small class sizes, which accounted for 8% of results a year ago, are a point of pride for many elite institutions. Its disappearance from the algorithm played a role in the fall in the rankings of certain major schools.
The University of Chicago, No. 6 last year, fell to No. 12. Dartmouth fell six spots to finish at No. 18. Washington University in St. Louis, which was No. 15 last year, slipped to 24th. Brandeis, now ranked 60th, fell 16 spots, almost as many as Wake Forest, which fell 18 spots to tie for 47th. Tulane fell from 44th to 73rd.
Michael A. Fitts, Tulane’s president, said he was “shocked” by his university’s decline, which he attributed to “a radically different methodology” that harms schools like his. Large public universities, he argued, were better suited to meet the ambitions abruptly presented by the U.S. News rankings, but he added that the caliber of a place like Tulane had not diminished overnight.
“Do they now have the best of both worlds or the worst of all worlds? he asked, referring to US News. “Are they mixing different criteria together looking at, essentially, your ability to enroll a large, large class of students? Or do you somehow look at the academic quality of the students during their stay?
To the chagrin of many administrators, US News has retained, with the same weight as last year, a survey of presidents, deans and deans, who are asked to take into account the academic caliber of other institutions. Critics have long argued that the survey, which accounts for 20 percent of a school’s score, introduces a decidedly subjective element into the system.
Mr. Gertler noted that the survey’s importance had declined over the history of the rankings, but he defended its continued inclusion because “reputation matters in society.”
Some of the country’s best-known universities have seen their fortunes improve. Columbia, which was No. 2 before falling to No. 18 after admitting to submitting inaccurate data, returned to No. 12. The University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles are tied as the best. top public schools in the country after climbing five places each to reach 15th place.
In Florida, New College, the target of an ideological and administrative overhaul championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican presidential candidate, plunged 24 spots to tie for 100th among liberal arts schools.
The college, like many others that have seen significant drops in rankings, did not respond to a request for comment. Chicago, the only institution to fall out of the Top 10, issued a statement blaming its fall on the change in methodology.
“We believe in and remain committed to the academics and core principles that have long defined the UChicago experience – such as our small class sizes and instructor training level, considerations that have been eliminated from U.S. News ranking metrics & World Report this year,” the report said. said the university.
Wake Forest expressed similar concerns.
“Wake Forest has never made decisions or determined university strategies based on rankings such as those from U.S. News,” said university president Susan R. Wente. “We have no intention of starting now.”
US News is no stranger to complaints. The publisher, however, has given no signs that it wants to abandon a system that brings in millions of eyeballs – and dollars.
Maia Coleman reports contributed.