Responding to College Ranking Reports

Every year, a number of college ranking reports are compiled and published for students and parents looking to find the right institution. These reports include rankings based solely on academic programs and institutions as a whole.

In a study from the ‘90s by the Art and Science Group, the firm found U.S. News & World Report’s rankings were considered “’very helpful’ in evaluating a college’s quality” by two-thirds of parents of high-achieving, college-bound seniors. 

While schools may question the usefulness of these reports, studies of the impact of U.S. News’ college and university rankings have shown that there is a perceived difference in admissions based on a school’s ranking. James Monks and Ronald G. Ehrenberg’s article, “U.S. News & World Report’s College Rankings: Why do they Matter?” published in the November-December 1999 issue of Change offers some insight into the effects of a fall in ranking.

The year after a college or university dropped in rank, there was an increase in the percentage of applicants, there were fewer students accepting after they were admitted, and there was a decrease in entering students’ SAT scores. So, more students applied to the college, but less were willing to attend, and of those willing, they scored lower on their SAT scores compared to the other classes before them when the school ranked higher. Another consequence of a drop in rank was the amount of money offered to students. When an institution dropped, more grant money and less loan money was offered to students who were applying.

Monks and Ehrenberg also noted in their study that changes in rank could be attributed to change in U.S. News’ methodology and not always quality of the school.

Other studies of the effects of rankings have pointed to the weight of the label of “top tier” given to those schools ranking in the top 50 and the positive results based on moving up a spot in the top 25.

Schools are pitted against each other based on seven factors in the U.S. News’ report, but how do they respond to these rankings?

Dr. Debbie Below, assistant vice president for Enrollment Management and director of Admissions at Missouri State University, stated that Southeast provides information to organizations that do ranking, “so that the most accurate information about Southeast is available to students, when provided by a third-party source.” That said, these rankings do not affect school decision making. “Rankings are one of several information sources students and parents use to evaluate a college. I don’t see evidence that our standing in the rankings is used to guide administrative or academic-decision making.”

In an e-mail, Brian Whitson, director of University Relations for the College of William & Mary, also explained that school policies are not set based on how they could impact rankings. “There are so many rankings — U.S. News, Forbes, Kiplinger’s, Business Week, Princeton Review to name a few — that no one ranking or statistic could capture the entire character of this unique College community.” Whitson went on to say that the College does want to do well in these rankings because it is evident that these rankings are taken into account. He wrote, “And, as William & Mary President Reveley has said, it’s refreshing when outside sources affirm what we already know — William & Mary provides extraordinary academic experience. We’ll celebrate success and always look for useful ways to compare ourselves to our peers.”

Whitson did mention the College does watch for consistency in their rankings. “We continue to be among the leading universities in the country — no matter the format or methodology or rankings. One example is last fall’s Forbes rankings — only five universities (including W&M) were included among the magazine’s top-50 lists for both quality and value.”

So, colleges and universities may be paying as much attention to these rankings as alumnae, prospective students and their parents, faculty, and the media, but they probably won’t be making academic decisions based on these rankings.