What college rankings mean and how you can use it to your advantage.
The annual unveiling of the most recent U.S. News and World Report college rankings has become a regular September ritual. People devour each new set and a schools movement up or down the list can play a huge role in students’ college applications decisions.
But here’s the secret to the rankings: they’re completely made up. Oh sure, there is some kernel of truth about the relative quality of colleges hidden in there somewhere, but let’s pretend Williams slips from first to third one year. Does that mean its quality has fallen? Or that two schools are now clearly better? Of course not. Williams is probably doing, and will continue to do, the same things that have made it a top college for years.
So why might a school rise or drop in the rankings? It’s hard to say for sure, but here is something that is certain—U.S. News wants you to buy its rankings, whether in print or on the internet. Would you be as eager to shell out the money if the rankings stayed basically the same every year? Probably not, which is why U.S. News makes sure they change. Each year the rankings are always made up of the same different elements—various pieces like average SAT score, graduation rate, etc.—but the way they are combined can change. Maybe one year selectivity makes up 20 percent of an institutions score and another year it’s only 15 percent. By changing these weights subtly, U.S. News can ensure that even if a school’s average SAT score doesn’t change, its ranking might. It’s usually the case that if there’s a big shakeup in the rankings it’s not the schools that have changed, it’s the way the rankings are calculated.
U.S. News is pretty good about making these changes newsworthy, but not so much that they’re unbelievable. They occasionally mess up. Back in 2000, Cal Tech jumped up from ninth to claim the number one spot. It caused an uproar because no one actually believed Cal Tech was really better than Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. The school has barely cracked the top five since.
Scholars have used the fact that U.S. News tries to shake up the rankings each year to show just how important the rankings are to students’ admissions decisions. U.S. News releases enough of its ranking formula each year so that researchers can reconstruct what a school’s ranking would have been if U.S. News hadn’t changed their formula. This allows them to highlight changes in rank that occur because of a meaningful change in something like a school’s graduation rate versus a change in rank that happens just because U.S. News wanted to add a little spice to things. So what do these scholars find? For each spot a school moves up in the rankings that was a result only of U.S. News changing the formula, that school receives one percent more applications. That may not sound like a lot, but consider this example: Stanford is currently ranked fifth. If a formula change moves them into the top spot next year, they can expect a four percent increase in their applications from that change alone. That would amount to over 1,500 applications just because U.S. News changed their formula!
So this September when the rankings come out again think carefully about how much you want to obsess that you have a new favorite school because it jumped up a few spots. The smarter be may be to apply to a school that dropped a few spots—you’ll be applying to a school that is just as good as it was the year before, but you’ll have fewer applicants to compete against.