U.S. News and World Report College Rankings Largely Depend On This Factor

Every time I write about any sort of college ranking — whether your school or major was a waste of money, which majors are best for which school, and so on — I always find myself making the caveat, “but education can be difficult to quantify.” As such, I’ve always thought that college rankings might be helpful to an extent, but should still be taken with a substantial grain of salt. I may not have been wrong in thinking here, either, because according to a new study, the only real way for any school to move up U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 national universities — largely regarded as the be-all, end-all of college rankings — involves a stupidly massive amount of money and a whole lot of luck. For most schools, this makes upward mobility both expensive and almost impossible.

The study, which was published in the journal Research in Higher Education, has been in the making for ten years. Examining a decade’s worth of data on colleges that have ranked among the top 200 in 2012, and had been among the top 200 for at least five of the past 10 years, the researchers found that in order for a school like the University of Rochester — a well-regarded school that still consistently ranks in the 30s — to move up, the following would need to happen:

  • To rise one spot because of faculty compensation, the average faculty salary would need to increase $10,000;
  • To rise one spot because of resources provided to students, it would need to spend $12,000 more per student (Rochester has a student body of over 11,000 students);
  • To get into the top 20, the graduation rate would need to increase by 2 percent; the university would need to enroll more students who were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class; more alumni would need to give; the acceptance rate would need to be cut; and the SAT and ACT scores of incoming students would need to rise;
  • And it would need to pass the “beauty contest” portion of the ranking (because apparently a not insignificant portion of any college’s given score relies on looks).

The first two bullet points would cost $112 million alone. $112 million.

See? Even Loki knows it's nuts.

Concludes the paper, “If all of these changes were made, but a corresponding change in undergraduate reputation did not follow, the second simulation showed that a rank between 25 and 30 would be more typical, and this university would never move into the top 20. It’s likely, too, that these findings would apply to other U.S. News lists, like the ones for regional colleges and liberal arts institutions.

At least it’s not as bad as schools needing to pay U.S. News directly for their rankings… but that’s cold comfort. The moral of the story: A school can be an overall fantastic school, but still score poorly because of money — even if financially, the institution is fine. So I would say this: Screw the rankings. Do your research, figure out what school you think is the best fit for yourself, and go have the best college experience you can. You take out of what you put in, and no top 20 list can every take that away from you.