Do college rankings do more harm than good?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

  • Every year, millions of prospective college students rely on college rankings to inform the life-altering decision of where they will continue their education, but those same rankings have been the target of criticism over what they actually measure.

  • The most popular college rankings, by U.S. News & World Report, weigh a long list of factors, including graduation rates, debt taken out by the typical student and the relative prestige of a particular school. The top spots are consistently awarded to a small number of elite universities, leading experts to argue that they serve more as a measure of wealth and power than of a school’s quality.

“Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that truly count. … That system of ranking is a joke!”U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

  • U.S. News stands by its rankings but has also taken steps over the years to try to address these criticisms. Its 2024 list, released last month, included new ranking criteria that placed significantly more emphasis on social mobility — essentially, how much attending a school alters the trajectory of a student's life for the better — which caused many low-cost state universities to leap up in the rankings.

Why there’s debate

  • Critics of college rankings say the reports need to be radically reformed so they reflect the wide range of opportunities that different schools offer rather than perpetually promoting an exclusive list of elite universities that aren’t a good fit for a huge share of the nation’s college students.

  • Others say the rankings practice should be scrapped altogether. They say the value of an education is so complicated and specific to individual students that colleges can’t possibly be reduced down to a number. They argue that college rankings have also played a role in making a college education more expensive and less accessible, with schools prioritizing ranking factors over their students’ needs.

  • But rankings defenders say the reports meet a very real need for college applicants who are desperate for some sort of guidance in the face of so many different schools. They also argue that the lists are intended to be a jumping-off point in the college search and not a definitive catalog.


The rankings make the education gap between rich and poor even more severe

“They celebrate institutions that represent less than 1% of the college-going population. The top 10 ‘best’ colleges have billions of endowment dollars, are more exclusive than inclusive and reject almost every student who applies. They serve the few and fortunate and do more to reinforce socioeconomic inequality than to mitigate it.” — Michael Itzkowitz, Mercury News

With major changes, the rankings could truly reflect what students need most

“None of the college ratings that I’m familiar with truly tries to measure what I consider the single most important variable: the quality of the academic experience. That’s not easy to do, but I do think it’s possible.” — Steven Mintz, Inside Higher Ed

Applicants miss out on the best school for their needs because it has a low rank

“Students shouldn’t be made to feel they are attending an inferior college just because it has a lower ranking determined by a media company. Lower-ranked colleges may be a better option for some students for any number of reasons — like their proximity to where students live, their overall costs, the flexibility they offer in terms of class schedules, or how much attention they give to undergraduates.” — Louis Freedberg, San Francisco Chronicle

The true root of the problem is America’s lionization of elite colleges

“To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault doesn’t lie in U.S. News and World Report or in the flawed ways it assigns stars to our universities. The problem is us, and the way we make the star universities matter much more than they really do.” — Jonathan Zimmerman, Philadelphia Inquirer

There’s no way to quantify what makes a college valuable to millions of individual applicants

“Where to attend college is a big decision, if not nearly as consequential as many young people believe, because college is a serious commitment of time and money. It shouldn’t be outsourced to U.S. News, Forbes or any other organization spitting out a one-size-fits-all hierarchy with a debatable methodology dictated by nameless, faceless number crunchers.” — Frank Bruni, New York Times

For all their flaws, the rankings are still better than the alternative

“The alternative to rankings is not some ideal world where every prospective student does deep, holistic research on every school they’re applying to, carefully weighing job placement prospects, cultural fit, faculty research profiles and so forth. The alternative is people going by the relative prestige of the school name, plus recruiting materials that might not (probably won’t?) give students anything like the full story.” — Megan McArdle, Washington Post

College applicants will be better off if they ignore the rankings entirely

“What is a high school student or parent to do? The con men run the game, but it’s the only game in town. … The truth is: You don’t have to play. When U.S. News started publishing, it was relatively more difficult to get information about colleges across the country. Today, we live in an information overload.” — David M. Perry, CNN

The reality is, millions of students find the rankings to be a valuable resource

“Would students have a better experience if they considered what they really wanted out of a college —beyond its ranking? Probably. But will applicants begin to ignore publicly available compilations of how their schools rank? Probably not anytime soon.” — Josh Zumbrun, Wall Street Journal

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