The Forum | General Education

US News Rankings Miss the Mark, Value Reputation over Education

September 9, 2014

The (in)famous US News & World Report annual college rankings list is out.

This year’s rankings were accompanied by a brief discussion of the many issues currently plaguing the minds of prospective students and their families. From student loan debt to high unemployment among recent grads, there’s a lot to worry about. That, US News concludes, is “why choosing a college that fits academically and financially is so important.”

Yet, despite drawing attention to academic outcomes and soaring tuition, US News makes its ranking decisions with an eye not to these issues but to a school’s selectivity and reputation. And as ACTA’s Vice President of Policy Michael Poliakoff explains in a statement today: “Reputation, student selectivity and alumni donations have very little to do with whether a student will receive a solid education and be ready for career and citizenship.”

ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project, on the other hand, aims to help students cut through the self-congratulation of elite universities and determine where students will receive a well-rounded education and where they will get, at most, a nice-looking credential.

US News’s list and ACTA’s don’t always line up. They rank schools like Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore—all selective institutions with sterling reputations—as the top three liberal arts educators. But when ACTA peeled back the veneer of prestige we found that these schools earn What Will They Learn? grades of D, F, and D respectively. Not exactly top marks.

While the US News rankings undoubtedly provide some useful information to students wading through a seemingly endless array of options, they suffer from a number of biases common in the world of higher education. A school’s prestige might matter to prospective students, but educational attainment itself must take center stage if students are to know exactly what they’re getting for all those tuition dollars.   


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