Study: Joining the Top Echelon of Best Colleges Rankings Costs

Robert Morse

A new research paper advises schools looking to move up in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings that getting near the top would be "extraordinarily" expensive.

The paper "can serve as a basis for frank discussions within a university about the likelihood of significant changes in rank and provide valuable insight when formulating strategic goals," according to the study's authors, Shari L. Gnolek of consulting firm Scannell & Kurz, Vincenzo T. Falciano of the University of Rochester and Ralph W. Kuncl of University of Redlands. They published their work this spring in Research in Higher Education, the journal of the Association for Institutional Research.

This research paper -- titled " Modeling Change and Variation in U.S. News & World Report College Rankings: What would it really take to be in the Top 20?" -- is the latest in a rapidly expanding body of academic literature that takes a scholarly, analytic approach to the study of academic rankings and their impact on higher education and the broader society.

Some other key points in the paper include the following:

-- "U.S. News college rankings play a role in student decision making," the study states. "Parents and students sometimes use them as a starting point to help them filter through information and narrow options when beginning the college search process, and there is evidence that shows they consider them when making decisions about where to enroll."

-- The authors also point out that, "given their influence on admissions outcomes, resource allocation, and strategic planning, U.S. News rankings also have a tangible impact on universities. Rankings have been shown to be especially important to private institutions, regardless of their ranking tier, because universities alter their behavior in response to them."

-- "While an improvement in rank may bring positive benefits to a university, this research shows that meaningful rank changes for top universities are difficult and would occur only after long-range and extraordinarily expensive changes, not through small adjustments," the paper state. "Universities might be best served by focusing their efforts and resources on what they do best, not what is being measured by U.S. News, by making improvements that are in line with their own goals and are centered around the success of their unique student population."

-- The study concludes that for a university ranked in the mid-30s in the U.S. News National University ranking category, "it would take a significant amount of additional resources, directed in a very focused way, to become a top-ranked national university." If a university moves up or down in the rankings by four or fewer places, that should be considered "noise," the researchers say, not a meaningful one-year change.

The paper says that it has proven "that it would take a substantial amount of additional resources, directed in a very purposeful way, to become a top-ranked national university. With these empirically derived requirements, institutional leaders can now weigh the perceived benefit of moving up in rank against the predicted additional costs and the degree to which making changes to pursue a change in rank might alter the very nature of the university."

U.S. News fully agrees that it takes a meaningful yearly change in the actual factors that go into calculating the Best Colleges rankings to significantly affect a school's standing. On average, the typical school's rank changes very little in any given year.

U.S. News also agrees that top officials at schools need to focus on educational policies that are best for their students and not what will help them in the U.S. News rankings.

The Best Colleges rankings are not meant to be a management tool for college presidents. A school's rise in the rankings shouldn't be used as a basis for proving that their educational policies are working or not working.