FAQs: Best Colleges Rankings vs. Obama's Proposed Ratings

Robert J. Morse
U.S.News & World Report LP

Since the launch of the 2014 Best Colleges rankings on usnews.com last week, several questions have been raised regarding the U.S. News rankings and President Barack Obama's proposed new college rating system, which would tie federally funded Pell Grants and students loans to college performance.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the president's rating plan and the U.S. News college rankings.

What does U.S. News think about the president's rating plan?

We welcome the fact that the president believes college ratings are a good idea and that they provide meaningful comparative information to students and their parents. The president's plan is to create a rating system that takes into account access, affordability and student outcomes; if approved by Congress, it will also be used as a public policy tool to allocate federal funding.

This is very different from the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, which determine which schools are tops in undergraduate academic quality. The U.S. News rankings aim to provide prospective students with key comparative information on colleges to help them in their college application process. We believe the rankings should be used as just one tool during this search.

What does the president's plan mean for students and parents?

One benefit of the president's plan is that, if approved, comparative student outcomes data will become available from colleges and the U.S. Department of Education for the first time.

If implemented, the president's plan could mean that comprehensive college graduate earnings, advanced degrees of graduates and a more complete picture on student debt loads after graduation will be available, since the U.S. Department of Education can require schools to accurately report that data.

The bottom line is that more information and more data are better for everyone.

What will U.S. News do with these more detailed student outcomes data?

Currently, the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings incorporate graduation and retention rates; we also use graduation rate performance, which measures the difference between each school's predicted graduation rate - based on characteristics of the incoming class closely linked to college completion, such as test scores and Pell Grants - and its actual graduation rate.

We also do a separate ranking of the Best Value Schools, taking into account a school's academic quality and the net cost of attendance for a student who receives the average level of need-based financial aid.

When U.S. News has access to more robust outcomes data, such as college graduate earnings, we will incorporate them into our Best Colleges rankings. At this time, however, such comparable postgraduation student outcome measures don't exist and have never been published.

Is it true that U.S. News rewards schools for spending more money by raising costs?

No, U.S. News does not reward schools in this way. U.S. News uses financial resources per student in our ranking methodology, but we're not counting spending on sports, luxury dorms, fancy food services, hospitals and other non-education spending.

We're measuring how much the school spends on directly educating its students for such things as instruction and student services. We believe that money does matter to enable a school to offer a wide range of top-quality programs, but only if colleges are spending it directly on educating students.

Do the U.S. News rankings encourage colleges to misreport data and game the system?

In the last year, there have been a few isolated instances of data misreporting. They represent a tiny percentage of the colleges and data that are included in our rankings.

These disclosures by schools prove that accurate data have become more important, not less, to parents, students, alumni, academic researchers, boards of directors, the federal government and, ultimately, the schools' reputations.

We believe that the fact that schools have made such disclosures will result in greater accountability, transparency and a demand for colleges to emphasize accurate external data reporting in the future.

It is also important to note that in some of the cases the misreported data were also given to the U.S. Department of Education and other groups like bond rating agencies.

Can schools rise in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings by rejecting more students?

No, this is not case. The Best Colleges rankings use acceptance rate as a factor; however, that rate counts for just 1.25 percent of our overall rankings. This low weight means that it's nearly impossible for schools to rise in the rankings by rejecting more students.