Friday, February 23

Why Colleges Can’t Quit the U.S. News Rankings

Yale Law School started the exodus last November: Dozens of law and medical schools, many among America’s most elite, vowed not to cooperate with the U.S. News & World Report rankings juggernaut. The publisher’s priority-skewing formula was flawed, administrators complained, as was the notion that schools could be scored and sorted as if they were mattresses or microwaves.

Critics of the rankings dared to hope that undergraduate programs at the same universities would defect, too. But despite generations of private grousing about U.S. News, most of those colleges conspicuously skipped the uprising. Yale, Harvard and dozens of other universities continued to submit data for U.S. News’s annual undergraduate rankings, the 2024 edition of which will be released on Monday.

“It’s been very stable, and that’s a good thing,” said Eric J. Gertler, the executive chairman of U.S. News.

That the rebellion went only so far, for now, has underscored the psychic hold that the rankings have on American higher education, even for the country’s most renowned schools. The rankings remain a front door, an easy way to reach and enchant possible applicants. And their reach goes beyond prospective students since proud alumni and donors track them, too.

Many administrators are also mindful of what might happen to renegades: Reed College’s standing plunged for a year — from the second quartile to the fourth — after its 1995 decision to stop cooperating with the rankings.

Add in a sense of futility — U.S. News vows to rank schools even if they drop out — and administrators often feel that the easiest, clearest path is compliance, however unenthusiastic it might be.

“I think their concern is if they pull out, it’s going to hurt them,” said Scott Cowen, a former president of Tulane University. “They’re willing to stay because they don’t want to rock the boat, and if they pull out, unless you’re already known as a great institution, people will say, ‘You got out because you weren’t highly ranked.’”

Of the universities where at least one professional school abandoned U.S. News, few were willing to explain their continued allegiance to the undergraduate rankings. Most of the more than two dozen schools contacted by The New York Times in recent weeks — including Duke, Harvard, Penn State, Stanford, Yale and the University of California, Los Angeles — did not respond or declined to comment.

But administrators who were willing to speak publicly said the rankings remain crucial to drawing notice in the chaotic bazaar of higher education, with more than 2,500 four-year institutions to choose from. (There are just under 200 law schools approved by the American Bar Association.)

“From our perspective, this is about getting information into the hands of prospective students,” said Andrew D. Martin, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, a highly selective institution whose medical school withdrew from the rankings.

Besides, given U.S. News’s insistence that it will rank any school it wishes, he said, “I’m not even sure that pulling out actually means anything.”

That is particularly true if a university here or there withdraws since some administrators feel that a broad array of schools, especially those at or near the top, would need to rebel to upend U.S. News’s power.

“I was sure that more schools would join us,” said L. Song Richardson, the president of Colorado College, which tied for 27th among liberal arts colleges last year and subsequently announced that it would stop aiding U.S. News. “I am disappointed it hasn’t happened.”

Columbia University was the highest-ranked school to withdraw after last year’s rankings were published. But its move came after it had dropped in the rankings — to No. 18 from No. 2 — after the school had submitted misleading data.

Ms. Richardson said the rankings were “so entrenched” in higher education that many administrators can scarcely fathom not participating, especially as they confront the pressures of changing demographics and falling enrollments. For schools that lack the cachet of a Princeton University or a University of California, Berkeley, a ranking can be among a school’s most powerful marketing tools. According to Mr. Gertler, U.S. News’s education coverage draws more than 100 million visitors a year online.

“It’s important to be part of the conversation, to be included in the conversation,” said Thayne M. McCulloh, the president of the 83rd-ranked Gonzaga University, where the law school recently ended its cooperation with U.S. News.

U.S. News employs different methodologies to assess undergraduate programs and professional schools, and grievances vary from one ranking to another (and oftentimes from one dean to another). The publisher’s avoidance of a uniform formula, Dr. McCulloh suggested, has been important.

“I think it’s fair for a law school to make a judgment about whether or not that ranking methodology works for them,” Dr. McCulloh said. “It’s a different approach than the one that might be used for the ranking of the undergraduate program.”

In a move that could deter future revolts, U.S. News said this month that its overall methodology for undergraduate rankings had undergone “greater modifications than in a typical year.”

The changes, most of which the company did not detail publicly, included altering the weights of some factors, placing “a greater emphasis on social mobility and outcomes for graduating college students” and stripping out five factors, including the alumni giving rate and undergraduate class size. Although the changes are unlikely to reshape the top and bottom of the rankings, they could unleash significant shifts for schools that had struggled with, say, persuading graduates to contribute money.

But U.S. News will continue to include its survey of academic leaders, despite years of complaints that it is essentially a popularity contest, swayed by rivalries, biases, slick marketing and perhaps a little horse trading.

Mr. Gertler of U.S. News defended the rigor of the company’s approach and said it was a consumer service.

“We’re focused on helping students make the best decision for their education,” he said.

It is far from clear how many students will notice, or care about, the changes.

Although a recent survey found that nearly three-fifths of college-bound high school seniors “considered” rankings to some degree, more than half reported that colleges put too great an emphasis on them, according to Art & Science Group, a consultancy that works with public and private universities.

Oftentimes, administrators and researchers said, students may use rankings to prepare an initial list of potential matches, but make a final enrollment decision based on other factors — from a financial aid package to a dining hall’s breakfast-for-dinner buffet.

When it comes to rankings, students “seem to be more interested in the neighborhood than in the street address,” said David Strauss, an Art & Science Group principal.

The threat of defections has not vanished. Berkeley, whose law school withdrew, left open the possibility of a future change. A spokeswoman, Janet Gilmore, said there had not been a universitywide decision on participating in rankings because the campus “has not yet had the opportunity to collectively think and talk about this issue.”

For now, Berkeley has continued to use its stature as part of its marketing arsenal.

In a handsome “Cal Facts” brochure, next to a section trumpeting the number of Nobel Prize winners on Berkeley’s faculty and among its alumni, the university notes that it is “the No. 1 public institution in U.S. News & World Report’s global rankings.”