“There is kind of a culture around rankings that is unhealthy,” said Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at Khan Lab School and co-author of “The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”
Still, the rankings endure in popularity.
They feed into a fixation on status
The college application process today is riddled with pressure and anxiety, and rankings feed into that, experts say.
For a certain subset of high school students in middle and upper class communities, getting into a “good” school is the ultimate goal — the reason they load up their schedules with rigorous AP classes, extracurricular activities and SAT prep. What’s considered a “good” school? More often than not, it’s Ivy League institutions and other prestigious universities — in other words, the schools that perform well in the US News rankings and similar lists.
“We live in a brand-obsessed society, and so there’s a little bit of fear and a little bit of ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ built in there,” Barnard said.
“I don’t think we’re always honest with ourselves about how much we’re placing weight in the rankings,” he added.
They offer easy answers in a daunting process
Not everyone looking at the rankings is status-obsessed, though.
What college a student attends is often framed as one of the most important decisions a young person will make, and given the hefty price tag that now comes with it, students and families want to be sure that they’re making the smartest investment.
“Left to their own devices and with this information overload, families don’t know where to start,” Barnard said. “So they default to this third party system of telling them what’s good and what’s not.”
Students and families turn to rankings to narrow down hundreds of potential colleges and universities and identify which might be worth applying to, said Robert Kelchen, a professor and head of the department of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also a data editor at Washington Monthly, which publishes an alternative college ranking that rewards social mobility, research and public service.
The issue is that the US News rankings — which remain the most well-known by virtue of being around the longest — are based in part on criteria such as selectivity and reputation, which may not suit the needs of most students, Kelchen said . In other words, while they offer enticingly simple conclusions, they aren’t one-size-fits-all.
“US News is focused on ‘How do you get the best outcome for one individual student?’ and getting the student into an Ivy is a wonderful thing,” Kelchen said. “But thinking more broadly about the public good, there are so few spaces at Ivies that it’s also important to identify colleges that do a really good job getting students farther along in life.”
But the conversation is slowly shifting
In today’s hyper-competitive, status-driven society, it’s perhaps no surprise that the US News rankings continue to retain such a grip on students and universities — they speak to the desires of students to get ahead. Attending a top-ranked school provides a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, as well as a degree of advantage. On some levels, that allure will always remain.
But there are signs of a culture shift. Policymakers and professionals in higher education have for years dismissed the US News rankings — even if that sentiment hasn’t fully trickled down to students and families.
“There’s a growing recognition of the importance of post-secondary value,” said Piper Hendricks, vice president of communications and external affairs for the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “I’m hopeful that that momentum will continue and that it will reach the point where families and students and individuals are able to really make the decisions based on answers that they deserve to have.”
Barnard encourages students and families to dig deeper into the data (or lack thereof) on which US News rankings and similar lists are based, and to explore alternatives that might better reflect their values. Degree Choices and Third Way, for example, are based on what schools offer a higher chance of economic success.
“What we need is more granular detail, and for families to really understand what’s the secret sauce to making the methodology around the rankings,” he added.
Rankings, by design, offer simple answers to a complex decision. But if people are going to consult them, Barnard and others said, they might as well be discerning about it.
CNN’s Deidre McPhillips contributed to this report.