The 2015 U.S. News and World Report college rankings were released early on Tuesday morning, marking the beginning of another admissions cycle.
There was little change among the top schools in this year’s ratings, with Yale trailing both Princeton and Harvard for the second year in a row. The U.S. News rankings list, which admissions experts agree has long held a dominant perch in the realm of higher education, assesses schools on a combination of factors including graduation rates, selectivity and the standardized test scores of the most recent incoming classes. Still, despite the importance many high school applicants and media outlets attribute to college rankings, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan and other college admissions experts cautioned against reading too much into the results.
Although the University consistently ranks highly in the U.S. News rankings, Quinlan said there are considerable flaws and potential pitfalls with a comprehensive college ranking system.
“Any time you try to rank an incredibly diverse set of institutions in an ordinal way, there are going to be issues,” Quinlan said.
For example, Quinlan said he is concerned that the metrics of the U.S. News rankings could incentivize schools to overvalue the importance of standardized test scores or prioritize using financial aid resources for merit scholarships at the expense of need-based scholarships.
He added that his office does not ascribe much importance to Yale’s rankings.
Still, experts interviewed said that many schools pay close attention to their rankings on a year-to-year basis.
“The research shows that many university administrators make educational policy decisions with the school’s ranking in mind,” said Robert Morse, director of data and research at U.S. News.
In order to rise in the rankings, Morse said a school might decrease class sizes or hire more research-oriented faculty. Still, he said U.S. News does not encourage schools to let the company’s ranking methodology be a primary reason for making administrative or policy shifts.
David Petersam, president of the Virginia-based higher education consulting group AdmissionsConsultants, said many admissions offices use the rankings as a gauge of how well they are doing.
But Quinlan rejected that claim where Yale is concerned, adding that the University’s admissions office uses its own internal set of metrics such as the strength and diversity of the incoming freshman class and admitted student surveys to assess its performance.
Tony Marx ’81, the former president of Amherst College from 2003 to 2011, said rankings do not adequately assess the quality of higher education because the metrics used are too narrow.
“There is real educational benefit in having a diverse community of students from a variety of backgrounds,” he said.
According to Marx, the U.S News rankings do not reward schools who take students from low-income or ethnically underrepresented backgrounds who may either have lower standardized test scores or are statistically more at risk of dropping out.
Although Morse conceded that the U.S. News rankings do not consider ethnic diversity in its rankings, he said the rankings do reward schools whose students graduate at a higher rate than the average for their socioeconomic background.
Quinlan and all three college counselors interviewed said one of the reasons the U.S. News and World Report has so much clout in higher education is its near monopoly on college rankings.that the federal government is in the process of building its own rating system to hold America’s 7,000-odd colleges and universities accountable for performance, and to help control rising tuition fees.
Although the Department of Education has yet to publicize an exact date when this ranking will be released or the exact methodology by which universities will be evaluated, Quinlan said he is hopeful that this new federal ranking could challenge the U.S. News and World Report’s historic dominance by evaluating colleges with a more holistic set of metrics.
But Morse said his company would likely be unaffected by the introduction of a federal rating system because the two systems would be measuring different qualities. While U.S. News is trying to assess the academic excellence of a school, the government will try to measure the best postgraduate outcomes for a student in comparison to the tuition a school charges, he said.
Still, Morse cautioned students or parents from relying too heavily on college rankings during the college search process.
“College rankings should be only used as one tool in the application process,” he said.
He added that it is important for students and parents to do as much independent research as possible.
Although all 18 students interviewed said college rankings affected their college selection process in some way, the opinions of Yale freshmen differed from those of the eight high school seniors interviewed.
Seven of eight high school students said the rankings will play a strong role in deciding where they will apply.
Sophie Whisnant, a high school senior from Wilmington, North Carolina, said she is only applying to schools that were ranked in the top 10 for journalism, the subject she plans to study.
“I think rankings give me a pretty good preview of how good the programs are there, especially since, as a high schooler, I don’t really have much to base my opinion off of,” said Bob Wang, a senior from San Diego, Calif.
But only three of 10 Yale students interviewed said the rankings played an influential role in the college application process.
Lena Nasrallah ’18, a freshman from Egypt, said she had to rely on rankings more heavily because, as an international student, she could not easily visit schools.
But Herbert Gilman ’18, a freshman from New York City, said college visits were a far more important factor for him than university ranking systems.
In this year’s U.S. News rankings, Stanford, Columbia and the University of Chicago were in a three-way tie for 5th place. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke, University of Pennsylvania and the California Institute of Technology rounded out this year’s top 10.